Winter Sun Safety

Sun Safety from the bottom of the world

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By Anne Todgham, Assistant Professor of Animal Physiology, University of California Davis

For the past two years, I’ve been leading a research team in Antarctica as part of the United States Antarctic Program to understand the vulnerability of Antarctic fishes to future climate change. I’m specifically interested in understanding how ocean warming and ocean acidification (the absorption of CO2 by the ocean causes it to acidify) impacts the development and performance of young fishes.IMG_1166_team photo at MCM sign

Antarctic organisms have spent millions of years at stable, sub-zero conditions and have tuned their physiology to be able to survive in polar waters. Unfortunately, this tuning has resulted in them having a physiology that is very susceptible to warming and therefore scientists are concerned that polar species will not be able to tolerate future ocean conditions. This is worrisome given that Antarctic fishes in particular are largely only found in the Antarctic and are very important food for seals and penguins.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The feeling of arriving in Antarctica for the first time never goes away – utter amazement at the vast expanse of whiteness and how lucky you are to be able see such remarkable beauty in its simplicity. Now don’t get me wrong, Mother Nature can be fierce in Antarctica and there are many times we wonder how the early explorers, like those on the Shackleton and Scott expeditions, were able to cope without the extreme cold weather (ECW) gear of today. Unlike the fishes I study, we are clearly not tuned to survive Antarctica’s climate! Being prepared when you go outside is the key to success on this harsh continent.

DCIM100GOPROBefore we deploy from the US and head to the bottom of the world, we get a thorough set of medical exams to ensure we are in top shape. Part of the paperwork is a reminder about the importance of sun safety. As the sun’s harmful rays are reflected from the snow, the US Antarctic Program takes sun safety very seriously insisting all program participants wear sunscreen and sunglasses. We are advised to bring multiple pairs of high quality UV protective sunglasses from a list of recommended brands (in the Antarctic you always need back up of important items since you just can’t go out and buy more on a moment’s notice). When we arrive in Christchurch, New Zealand for our final briefings and clothing issue, we are given two bags of ECW gear. This gear includes an extremely warm red Canada Goose coat (“Big Red”), snow boots, snow pants, long underwear, fleece, hats, mitts and a pair of UV protective goggles.

IMG_1363_Hand washing & sunscreen go hand in handMy research team conducts fieldwork outside most days, in good weather and bad, and there isn’t a day that I don’t apply sunscreen throughout the day and wear my sunglasses. Remembering sunscreen is not hard to forget at McMurdo Station, the largest of the US research stations in Antarctica. There are sunscreen stations at the doors of most main buildings of the station. At the entrance to the galley, there is a hand washing station for when you go in and a sunscreen station for when you leave.

Our three-month field season is about to end. It is starting to feel a little like “summer” in Antarctica. Temperatures get above freezing during the day and McMurdo is turning into McMudhole, as the snow begins to melt and the ground thaws. Time to return north for the holidays, just in time for a sun-safe winter in North America!


The flip side of the sunny winter get-away

Written by: Danielle Paterson, Executive Director, DCMF

We are deep in the heart of what’s been an exceptionally long, icy and cold winter in Toronto. Although I’ve loved a few amazing days of sledding, skating and playing in the snow with my children, I could have done without the extreme cold and icy conditions. In fact, I’m counting the days until we head down to Florida for a week of outdoor fun in the sun.

One of the reasons I love winter get-aways with my family is that they remind me of the sunny destination vacations I was fortunate to experience when I was growing up. I fondly remember endless days of swimming, sailing, playing tennis, building castles and snorkeling. These trips were a time to slow down and enjoy a bit of summer weather in the middle of our long Canadian winter, a time to read a great novel and an opportunity to spend quality time with my family.

Recently, however, a flip side of the wonderful nostalgia I have for these sunny winter trips is the realization that I experienced repeated extreme exposure to the sun throughout my childhood and adolescence. Yearning to warm up, eager to enjoy all aspects of the outdoors, I spent all day outside in the very hot and intense Florida or Caribbean sun.

Those were the 1970’s and 1980’s when applying ‘sun tan oil’ (I can still vividly remember that strong coconut smell) and ‘working on your tan’ were normal and expected behaviors. Although I tanned once in awhile, I was never one to ‘work on my tan’, choosing instead to enjoy a swim, run or snorkel. But the truth of the matter is that even though I wasn’t ‘tanning’, I probably spent the same amount of time in the sun as the die-hard tanners, receiving equal exposure and therefore equal skin damage.

I used sunscreen occasionally but it was usually only SPF 4 or 7, and wearing a great bathing suit was much more important than covering up with hats and clothing. As a result, over the years, I had several severe blistering sunburns, including painful burned feet and even a burned scalp after an unwise decision to get my hair braided.

I cringe when I think about the amount of repeated extreme exposure I received from the sun on these beloved winter getaways. I cringe because I know the following sobering facts about sun exposure and melanoma:

  • Melanoma is a common and serious form of skin cancer that can be fatal.
  • The primary cause of melanoma is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or indoor tanning equipment
  • The risk of melanoma is increased when you are exposed to intense intermittent sun such as that experienced on a sunny vacation
  • Light-coloured hair, eyes and skin (like mine) increase the risk of developing melanoma
  • The more severe blistering sunburns received as a child, the higher your risk of melanoma.

Today, I notice that more North Americans are taking steps to protect their skin during sunny vacations. That said, however, I continue to notice people actively tanning and people, including babies who are particularly sensitive to the sun, completely exposed in the blazing sun for extended periods of time.

As incidence of other cancers is starting to decline, melanoma’s incidence is actually increasing. In Canada in 2013, there were an estimated 6000 new cases and 1050 deaths. Particularly concerning is that melanoma is the second most common cancer among adults aged 15-29.

Fortunately, we have the power to change these statistics because remarkably, melanoma is preventable. After working in the area of cancer for many years, this fact continues to amaze and inspire me.

Since sun/UV exposure is the primary cause of melanoma, the best way to reduce your risk of melanoma is to protect your skin from the sun on your sunny vacation. Simply put, if you are in the sun, you need to protect every part of your body:

  • Protect your head with a hat
  • Protect your skin with long clothing
  • Protect your exposed skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more and reapply often
  • Protect your eyes with sun glasses
  • Protect your whole body under the shade of trees or a large umbrella and reduce your time in the sun between 11am and 4pm when UV rays are most powerful

We feel the toll of melanoma more than most at the David Cornfield Melanoma Fund. Eight years ago, David Cornfield, a beloved son, brother, father and friend, died of melanoma at the age of 32. We continue to feel his loss and we miss him dearly. We are deeply committed to honouring David’s wish to educate people that melanoma is preventable and we are eager to empower people to protect their skin.

I cannot change the amount of sun damage I received on my cherished childhood winter getaways. I can, however, protect my skin now to reduce further damage and to be a role model to my children, family and friends. I can also actively protect my children to make sure they look back on their winter getaways without cringing.

If you have a chance to travel south this winter, enjoy your trip, create some memories, but please remember to actively protect your skin!

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