Slip, slop, slap and wrap

If I’m honest, I’ve never been bothered about putting on sun screen. My skin is pretty robust and tends to tan rather than burn, and therefore I’ve been pretty lax about slapping on the Soltan during the summer months in the UK. Even during my radiotherapy sessions where I was exposed to radiation every day for a month, other ladies were bemoaning their sore, burnt and, in some cases, blistered skin but I turned slightly pink.

That was it. No pain. No peeling skin. Just a bit pink.

I’ve only had severe sunburn twice in my life. The first time was in Australia on Bondi Beach in my early twenties where I forgot to put sun cream on my feet and they burnt so badly that I couldn’t fit them back into my sandals at the end of the day. They looked like two red water balloons at the end of my ankles and when you prodded them, you could actually see the fluid rippling underneath the skin. Bleh.

The second time was in New Zealand about 8 years ago when we went out to the beach and I didn’t wear a hat. Big mistake. My head got so burned I couldn’t even brush my hair such was the agony of pulling on my scorched scalp.

Despite having experienced first hand how painful sun burn can be, I didn’t really give it that much thought when me moved here until the other day when we went out on a costal walk and my daughter got burnt cheekbones even after she applied two layers of factor 50+ sun cream. I watched her do it and she didn’t miss a spot.

My daughter will have to be extra careful with her fair, freckled skin.

FACT: It doesn’t matter what kind of skin you have, the sun is BRUTAL here and you WILL damage it if you don’t protect it. In the summer, you’ll fry in less than 15 minutes. Keep doing that on a regular basis and you’ll develop wrinkles and liver spots quicker than you can say Piz Buin! It’s also worth mentioning that New Zealand has the second highest rate of skin cancer in the world (with Australia unsurprisingly taking pole position) and given that I’ve already had a bout of one type of cancer, I don’t really want another one, thank you very much.

I intend to stick religiously to the kiwi sun safety mantra: slip, slop, slap and wrap.

I know, it’s not very obvious so I’ll explain it. You should SLIP into clothes that cover your skin and SLIP into the shade where possible, SLOP on some factor 50+ sun cream and re-apply every 2 hours, SLAP on a hat with a brim, and finally invest in some sunglasses that WRAP around your eyes or at least large framed ones that cover more of your eyes.

As is the case in the UK, sun screen can be bought from all supermarkets and chemists in New Zealand and it’s very reasonably priced. You want to stick with brands such as Nivea, La Roche-Posay and Neutrogena as they all provide the SPF stated on the packaging. Others such as Banana Boat, Hawaiian Tropic, Invisible Zinc and Cancer Society (can you believe that last one?) can fall short which isn’t a risk you want to take.

So why are skin cancer rates so high here? Firstly, the closer you get to the equator, the higher UV levels are. Closer to the equator the sun’s rays have a shorter distance to travel through the atmosphere meaning that less of the harmful UV radiation can be absorbed.

Secondly, there is the problem of the ozone layer, or lack of it. Above New Zealand and Australia, the ozone layer is incredibly thin which allows more damaging UV rays to reach our skin.

But there are other reasons too.

Australia and New Zealand are two of the few countries close to the equator that have large populations of white people. Their ancestors would have originated from cooler European countries with fair skin that offers very little protection from the sun. Rates of melanoma are over five times higher in New Zealanders of European descent compared with Māori and Pacific peoples.

Something else to factor in is that New Zealanders love outdoor living and spend a lot of time outside all year round whether that be playing sports, going tramping (that’s rambling to you UK folks!) or socialising around the barbeque.

Put all these factors together and you have the perfect melanoma storm.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, recent research has suggested the underwater Tongan volcano which erupted in January of this year injected so much water into the stratosphere, it may have created a temporary loss of ozone over New Zealand . Luckily, the effect will be reversible as the water will be naturally removed from the stratosphere in a few years.

At the moment, UV levels are very high for this time of year. A UV Index level of 3 is enough to cause skin damage and the levels here are between 6 and 7 in the south, 7 to 8 in central New Zealand and between 8 and 9 in the north. And that’s just in spring. During the summer, UV levels can reach as high as 13 in the north of the country. For comparison, a UV level of 8 is rare in the UK, even in the height of summer.

But do not despair, dear reader. Skin damage is completely preventable as long as you follow the slip, slop, slap and wrap rules which I intend to do.

However, I don’t want to add to the skin damage of other people by allow harmful UV rays to bounce off my chubby lily white legs so I’ll be breaking out the Bondi Sands and the tanning mitt…..which is certainly much safer.


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