John’s seasons in the sun
Sun protection is a lot better than it used to be, but is it up to standard?
For John, the one constant in his life has been the outdoors. Growing up on a farm, surfing as a teenager and working for close to 50 years in both forestry and rural fire fighting and prevention means he has clocked up a huge number of hours out in the sun.
Time in the sun
Now in his early 70s, John is dealing with the ramifications of all that sun exposure, managing basal cell cancer for the past twenty years, undergoing countless surgeries and constantly monitoring his skin.
“During my life, I’ve had a lot of time in the sun. When we were younger, we didn’t think too much about summer days outside, exposed to the harshness of the elements. In fact, it was considered ‘healthy’ to work on your tan. I have memories of slathering myself in baby oil alongside my surfer friends, trying to bring some colour to my pale skin. Our knowledge of the harmful effects was zero,” John said.
“In my forestry days I’d drive 50,000km each year. I didn’t give it a second thought at the time, but the sun exposure through the windscreen was significant. That’s where I’ve had the greatest effect in terms of skin cancer and other issues, on the right-hand side of my face and right arm. Add to that the 20 years I’ve spent in farming and a decade on the triathlon circuit sweating off sunscreen in the heat, and I’ve certainly had a bit of sun mileage, incurring some damage along the way.”
Today, John’s in management mode. He covers up, wears sunscreen, goes for regular check-ups and limits his time outside. He’s also had a lot of time to contemplate the effects of the sun.
“We need to be confident that sunscreen that is being sold is true to the label, particularly for our children and grandchildren.”
“It probably wasn’t until the 1980s that I became aware of the harmful effects of the sun and started to think about sun protection. Today, we know about the thinning ozone layer and the flow-on effects of prolonged exposure. Around the country I now see awareness – schools arming children with hats and parents slathering their young ones in sunscreen, so this certainly makes me feel more positive for future generations.
“That said, when I found out that there are some sunscreens on the market that are not meeting the SPF claims they’re making on the bottle I was really surprised and disappointed. We need to be confident that sunscreen that is being sold is true to the label, particularly for our children and grandchildren. I don’t understand how something as basic as SPF labelling on products isn’t a 100 percent guaranteed thing in this country.”
Time for a mandatory standard
Dr Louise Reiche, NZ Dermatological Society president, agrees.
“It’s so important that there’s a mandatory standard so that everyone – including patients, consumers and doctors – can be confident that sunscreens are both safe and effective. Independent and regular testing is a way to guarantee this,” Dr Reiche said. “Some people falsely believe all sun damage is done in childhood but truthfully, during our lives there is cumulative UV damage and reducing exposure enables the skin to undo some past damage. The majority of people are applying sunscreen when the weather is hot and sunny and they are intentionally going outdoors for a lengthy period, which can mean coverage is compromised.”
More testing needed
Consumer NZ has been campaigning tirelessly for a mandatory sunscreen standard for many years. Research writer Belinda Castles has been managing Consumer’s sunscreen test programme for more than a decade.
“Our independent sunscreen tests have found routine sunscreen label failures, year on year. In the past three years, 31 out of 51 products didn’t meet SPF label claims,” Belinda said.
“Some of these companies were relying on test results from AMA Labs to substantiate label claims. However, this year, the owner of AMA Labs pleaded guilty to falsifying results. Cases such as these highlight the need for regular and independent testing.” Consumer NZ is the only one keeping sunscreen companies in check.
“Every New Zealander should have the right to buy sunscreens they can trust, knowing it will meet the protection claims on the label.”
“We’re doing all we can but each test costs about $5000, so we can only test a limited number each year. We strongly support sunscreens being monitored and tested regularly and believe there should be a mandatory standard for sunscreens. Every New Zealander should have the right to buy sunscreens they can trust, knowing it will meet the protection claims on the label.”
As for John and his lifetime of sun exposure, he never had the chance to get it “completely right” when it came to his skin, which is why he is turning his attention to future generations and hoping for progress.
“I want to know that my grandchildren and their generation won’t be faced with some of the issues that my age group is currently facing as they age. Part of that means being able to buy sunscreen with confidence. They deserve better than what we had.”
Dr Reiche’s sun-smart tips
- Seek shade when outdoors during daylight-saving months, wear a hat with a broad rim (or a Legionnaire’s hat if it’s windy!), and wraparound sunglasses.
- Cover most of your skin with clothing.
- Apply broad-spectrum (SPF50+) sunscreen to areas not covered by clothing when you’re exercising outside.
- Diligently combining all these measures, year-round, can help you undo some existing sun damage.
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