Know Your Skin Type and Avoid Sunburn

You most likely know if you are prone to high or low blood pressure; have a history of heart disease in your family; or whether or not you are diabetic.
But knowing your exact skin type is just as important, says Dr Neil Reddy, the Medical Director of Precision Healthcare.

“The fact is that people with pale skin tend to burn more easily than those with darker skin, and need to take extra precautions in the sun,” he explains. “In Ireland, we are traditionally pale and tend to burn more easily than many other races.”

Yet every year when the sun shines, we ignore the fact, peel off our clothes and expose our delicate translucent skin to the sun, heightening the risk of skin cancer later in life.

And you don’t have to be lying on a beach to burn. A recent study by the Irish Cancer Society found that the largest increase in sunburn is amongst affluent city dwellers from repeated exposure to the sun – most likely when they are going about their everyday business.

In fact, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Ireland with over 10,000 new cases diagnosed in men and women in 2013. In the same year there were 2,983 cases of breast cancer.  

The National Cancer Registry of Ireland (NCRI) expects this number to double by 2040.

And the rate of Melanoma (skin cancer) is doubling year-on-year in both Ireland the UK says Dr Reddy.

He points out that skin cancer typically presents years after the damage has been done so much of it has to do with the fact that we exposed our skin on foreign holidays from the late 70’s on.

“After the 1960s we had more disposable income and for first time in history, we had the chance to go abroad on package holidays to hot countries like Spain,” he explains.

“The culture at the time was to acquire a tan. But unfortunately most Irish skin is simply not made to take the sun and as a result we collectively did a lot of damage to our skin and we’re seeing the results now.”

In fact there are six different types of skin pigment, which respond differently to Ultra violet (UV) light. These are known as the Fitzpatrick Scale and most Irish people fit into the top three types.

Type I always burns and never tans. It’s usual in people with pale, white, blonde or red hair and blue, grey eyes.

Type II usually burns, tans minimally and is found in people with white, fair, blonde, brown or red hair and blue, green, or hazel eyes.

Type III meanwhile, burns mildly and tans uniformly and is found in people with any hair color and usually brown eyes.

Of course, as the demographic of Ireland has changed and other nationalities have come to live in our country, it’s now possible to find all six skin types anywhere in the country. 

But by knowing your skin type, you will know how tolerant you are to the sun and it could save your life.

“I would go so far as to say that everyone should be made aware of their skin type and how to protect it in school,” says Dr Reddy.

“Some people for example will simply never tan and they should mostly avoid the sun as it will simply cause damage later in life.

“It’s similar to smoking: if you know what your are getting into, you won’t start.”

He adds that a certain amount of sun exposure is necessary as we all need Vitamin D.

“Interestingly those with the palest skin have an evolutionary advantage in that they absorb Vitamin D faster than other skin types and so need the least amount of sun exposure. Just 10 to 15 minutes a day will do for someone with pale skin,” he says.

“After that you need to cover up or at least protect your skin with a high factor sun cream. Even wearing a hat can make a huge difference.”

People with darker skin though need longer in the sun to absorb the right amount of Vitamin D and also need to wear a lower factor sun cream.

“It’s about knowing your skin type and the sooner we become aware of it the better,” says Dr Reddy.

About Dr. Neil Reddy
MB BCh BAO (Hons), B.Med.Sci, LFOM, MSc (Health Informatics), MSc (Clinical Education)

Dr. Neil Reddy of Precision Healthcare is a Licentiate of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland. He has extensive experience in the design and delivery of health screening and wellness programmes for small and large clients, including several multinational companies.