Michael Tatarski looks at ways to beat the sun and what can happen if you leave your skin unprotected. Photo by Vinh Dao.

Southern Vietnam has a great climate for those who hate anything even approaching cold weather. But while the year-round sunshine may be the envy of your friends in other, more northern parts of the world, it also poses a serious health risk. Too much time under Saigon’s extreme rays can be dangerous. When it comes to outdoor activities, Dr. Mark Siefring, a locally-based dermatologist, stresses the risks of sun exposure and how best to protect yourself during the day.

“Skin cancer is very linked to sun exposure,” Dr. Siefring says. “There are three major types of skin cancer: Basal cell cancer is the most common skin cancer in the world; in fact, it’s the most common occurrence of cancer in humans.” Though this type of skin cancer is the least threatening it still requires treatment.

The second most common type of skin cancer is squamous cell cancer. According to Dr. Siefring this is “more associated with continuous sun exposure that you might get professionally as a gardener or a fisherman… of course, some people get it because they are sun worshippers, too.”

The third and most serious type of skin cancer is melanoma, which has three sub-types of its own. Some of these are associated with short bursts of sun exposure, while others are related to longer stints in the sun.

But in steamy Saigon, what can be done to protect your skin from harmful rays? “The primary method [of protection] is sun avoidance during the most intense period of the day, which would be 10am to 2pm,” Dr. Siefring shares. “In Vietnam, you might even extend that to 8:30 in the morning till around 4pm.”

Saigon’s UV index changes on a day-to-day basis but, thanks to the power of the internet, that information is available. One way to figure out when it’s best to stay indoors is through UVAwareness.com, a website which provides users with four days’ worth of UV data based on their location. Each hour from 6am to 6pm is labeled with a UV index from low to extreme. On most days, Saigon’s sun danger zone runs from 11am to 2pm, meaning sun exposure during that time should be kept to an absolute minimum.

However, if avoiding the outdoors isn’t possible, there are other ways to minimise the adverse effects of sun exposure. “Wearing sun protective clothing is another method,” Dr. Siefring says. “You can see that on Vietnamese women out there on their motorbikes with the long gloves, hat, face mask and so on.” Expats may think these outfits look comical but they do an excellent job of keeping the sun off your skin and thus reducing the risk of skin cancer.

Finally, there is, of course, sunscreen. Dr. Siefring explains: “You want a good sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 and is broad spectrum. The SPF tells you how well you’re being protected from the UVB component of sunlight, which is most strongly associated with skin cancer, whereas UVA is associated with skin aging. You don’t know how much UVA protection you’re getting just from the SPF system, so you need to get broad spectrum sunscreen.”

While lathering up is important, one thing to note when it comes to sunscreen is that ratings above SPF 30 don’t make much difference. “If you go from SPF 30 to 45 it sounds like you’ve really jumped up,” Dr. Siefring explains, “but once you’re at 30, if you properly apply it you’re blocking out 95 percent of the UVB component. SPF 45 will block out 97.25 percent, so you’re only gaining 2.5 percent.”

Whatever the SPF, make sure you opt for something practical. “For adults, it comes down to what sunscreen makes you feel comfortable so that you’ll want to reapply it – which should be done every two hours. For kids I always recommend that parents use more protective and less fragrant sunscreen which includes zinc and titanium oxide.”

Even with all this protection, it is still possible to develop some form of skin cancer. To catch any potential issues before they become serious, be sure to check your skin regularly, especially any moles you might have. “It’s useful to follow the rules of ABCDE for moles,” Dr. Siefring shares. “The most important is E, which stands for evolution, or elevating or evolving… that could mean it’s getting bigger, or the colour is changing, or perhaps it’s elevating where it used to be flat. A is asymmetry; B is borders, if you can’t clearly see the border; C is colour, so are there variable colours; and D is a diameter of more than six millimetres. If you see smaller moles changing, that’s important.”

Dr. Siefring also points out that wanting to soak up some Vitamin D is no excuse to over-expose yourself to strong sunlight. “In Vietnam, you get enough Vitamin D for the day in the time it takes to walk to your motorbike in the morning,” he asserts. In the end, the only way to completely avoid sun-related skin cancer is to completely shun sunlight but that is neither realistic nor particularly fun. When outside then, consider following the above advice to keep your skin cancer-free.

Dr. Mark Siefring is a dermatologist at District 1’s Stamford Skin Centre. For more information on UV exposure in Saigon, visit UVAwareness.com.