Skin expert issues winter sports warning

November 15, 2001

SKIERS and snowboarders should heed sun safety messages this winter to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer, says an expert from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK.

Millions of winter sports men and women will be heading for the slopes of Europe, America and elsewhere this season and the some of the world's finest atheletes will compete in the Winter Olympics in Utah in February 2002.

Few think they need to worry about the effects of the sun - the wrong attitude, says skin cancer expert Dr Mark Birch-Machin.

He says indulging in high altitude winter sports can expose the skin to very high levels of the sun's harmful UV rays. Holidaymakers therefore need to take as much care of their skin on a skiing or snowboarding break as they would do on a summer beach vacation.

Dr Birch-Machin points out that many of the world's ski resorts enjoy very sunny days - but he says that even in cloudy weather the UV rays in sunlight penetrate through to the slopes.

Snow also reflects 85% of the sun's harmful UV rays, which bounce back off the ground. This means that skiers and snowboarders can be burnt in body areas such as under the chin and nose. This can also occur in the shade.

The higher skiers and snowboarders go, the greater their risk of serious sunburn because there is less atmosphere to filter the UV rays. In general the air filters 4% less UV rays for every 1,000 feet above sea level - meaning that at an altitude of 5,000 feet - and most ski resorts in Europe and the US stand at or above this height - there is 20% more UV radiation than at sea level.

This is made worse by the fact that the parts of the body usually exposed to the sun on a ski holiday - particularly the face - are the most likely areas for skin cancer to develop.

In addition, keen skiers and snowboarders will be exposed to the sun's UV rays on the slopes for six to seven hours per day.

Increased sun exposure during both winter sports and summer holidays in hot countries increases the overall risk of developing skin cancer. Each year about 44,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the UK and in the United States there are up to 1.2m new cases.

Dr Birch-Machin, senior research lecturer in molecular dermatology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, says:

"Most people know too much sun exposure causes sunburn - but fewer people realise that the Ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight cause DNA damage in skin cells which may create a skin cancer time bomb."

"Skiing and snowboarding are fashionable sports, and people naturally want to look good on the slopes.

"However, some also like to come back from their holiday with a sun tan - in fact a recent report by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund showed the alarming fact that having a sun tan is still very in vogue".

"But it is absolutely essential that people pay as much attention to looking after and protecting their skin whilst on the slopes as they do to looking after other aspects of their appearance."

Dr Birch-Machin and his research team in the Department of Dermatology, University of Newcastle, are now working towards being able to provide skiers and snowboarders with tailor-made skin protection advice before they go on holiday.

They aim to do this by determining the DNA damage in the skin before and after a winter sports holiday. This damage in the mitochondrial DNA provides a ready made 'diary' of past exposure to the sun.

This will help determine the specific steps an individual will need to take to avoid excessive sun exposure and decrease the risk of developing skin cancer.
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In the meantime, Dr Birch-Machin is urging winter sports men and women to follow the following skin care advice:

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Some skiing and snowboarding facts (source: Snowsport Industries of Great Britain): Contact: Dr Mark Birch-Machin. + 44 (0)191 2225841. Email: M.A.Birch-Machin@newcastle.ac.uk.

Newcastle University

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