Under your skin

FACE OFF: Ellie Morris with her UV printout.
FACE OFF: Ellie Morris with her UV printout.

Summer is approaching fast and we are all looking forward to catching some rays, but an innovative campaign is giving teens a stark lesson in the damage done to their skin, writes Danielle Heyns . 

Given the opportunity, would you want to see what you will look like in future? What havoc the sun will wreak on your skin? How many wrinkles and crow's feet you will have?

Teenagers across the country will have the opportunity this summer with the Don't Let the Sun Get Under Your Skin campaign.

The Health Promotion Agency campaign uses UV camera technology to show teens the underlying skin damage caused by sun exposure. The specially calibrated camera takes photos under UV light to show damage under the skin, says Wayde Beckman, the campaign's senior marketing and health promotion adviser.

"It highlights the contrast between light and dark areas of the skin, showing up pigmentation and dark patches."

When this damage reveals itself in the form of prematurely aged skin is probably not as far off as we think, says Beckman. He recalls meeting a woman who spent a lot of the time in the sun and guessed her age at 30. She was 22.

More alarmingly, too much sun exposure can lead to skin cancer and teens with still-developing skins are more at risk than adults. Sunburn in adolescence is related to the development of skin cancer later in life and melanoma, the most serious skin cancer, affects young people from their teens upwards, according to the Cancer Society.

But reaching teenagers with a sun-safe message is tricky and health promotion agencies have to come up with innovative ways to spread their message. The University of Arizona Cancer Centre has taken to texting skin cancer messages to Arizona middle-school students.

"Teenagers have a lot going on," says Beckman. "At this stage, the SunSmart message somehow falls off their radar."

Parents will tell you that teens often don't plan before they go out - they might not even take a beach towel, let alone remember to apply sunscreen 15 minutes before they leave and take it with them. Getting trendy teens to wear a broad-rimmed hat and T-shirt instead of a singlet and to seek shade can be a battle.

It does appear, however, that tanning habits have changed compared with a generation ago.

"Tanning today is probably not what we'd identify as lying on a beach. It's more of a byproduct of being out and about, especially for boys. But they're quite happy to ‘acquire' a tan."

The Don't Let the Sun Get Under Your Skin campaign was launched in New Zealand in January after proving effective in Australia, and it appears to be working, says Beckman.

It reminds teens of the importance of protecting their skin in the sun and the positive choices they can make that will benefit them now and in the immediate future.

"We found that teenagers are more motivated by what's going to impact on their appearance and that it can lead to premature ageing - leathery or sagging skin, crow's feet. This appears to engage them. Their appearance is directly connected to their self-esteem and credibility. We find that teenagers do things that bring them pleasure and keep their standing among their peers."

But the same lack of skin protection that leads to premature ageing can also lead to skin cancer, says Beckman.

"We tell them: a tan is your skin's negative reaction to UV light. Protect your skin for life is our motto."

This summer, the campaign is focused around youth events, especially in beach towns on the Coromandel and in Mount Maunganui. See facebook.com/underyourskinNZ for a schedule of events.

"We set up two marquees and put up a dark room where people can have their photos taken."

The reaction when teens see their photos is mixed.

"There is a lot of surprise and if the contrast between the light and dark areas is significant, you can virtually see their jaws drop. Some are genuinely concerned about what they see; this gives us the perfect opportunity to empower them with the knowledge that enables them to change their behaviour."

Dermatologist Neil Mortimer agrees that UV camera technology will highlight sun damage and make it "more tangible" for people. "Anything that can help educate young people about the potential problems of sun damage is a worthwhile endeavour."

Sun damage prematurely ages the skin, resulting in dyspigmentation (abnormal skin pigment) and wrinkling. Significant sun exposure causes solar keratoses (red scaly spots) in the most sun-damaged areas, explains Mortimer.

"We see melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers, the major risk factor for all of these being sun damage. lf I have one message about sun safety, it would be: skin cancer can be life-threatening and you can reduce your risk of developing this in future by protecting your skin from sun damage."