A world-first test that assesses the damage people have done to their skin through sun exposure is being launched to the public at clinics throughout the UK.
The scientific test, whose launch comes as holidaymakers make plans to top up their tans during warm winter breaks, is able to reveal extent of the damage that sunbathers have inflicted on their skin's genetic material, DNA, over many years.
The new test, called 'skinphysical', draws on pioneering work by skin cancer experts at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, together with Canadian company Genesis Genomics. It is being offered via branches of the Court House Clinics, which are based across the country in London, Essex, Sussex, Birmingham and, to come soon, in Manchester, and by the BUPA clinic in Washington, Tyne and Wear.
Few people are aware that once their suntan has faded, the damage to their skin remains. This damage accumulates with every exposure, creating a personal tower of damage which never diminishes, continuously growing, leading to skin ageing and increasing the risk of skin cancer in later life.
Patients opting for skinphysical must give a small sample of their skin from just above their elbow, which is sent off for laboratory tests. They also fill in a comprehensive, ten-page questionnaire as part of a full analysis, which asks detailed questions about their lifestyle, skin type, sun protection regime, and more. All the information is used to provide customised sun safety advice, and patients can repeat the test at a later date to see if a change to their regime has had any affect on their skin cancer risk.
Professor Mark Birch-Machin, a skin cancer expert with Newcastle University's School of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, and managing director of Genesis Genomics UK, which has set up a base in his laboratories on the University campus, said:
"We're getting richer as a society, and there are more package holidays available, which means that more people are enjoying hot and sunny holidays abroad all year round. But the rise in the number of skin cancer cases in the UK shows that people are not taking the advice on protecting their bodies from the sun's harmful rays.
"The key issue with handing out general advice on sun safety is that it's not specific enough for the individual. It's human nature for people to assume that diseases like skin cancer happen to other people – and they tend not to make any adjustments to their behaviour until they are threatened with the real possibility of it affecting them.
"That's where our skin test has the advantage. People who take it get a highly personalised assessment of the risks they are facing from the sun, which depends on factors such as their genetic skin type, lifestyle, and, most importantly, the results from the test, which reveals the extent of damage accumulated over many years."
Prof Birch-Machin, who is also developing the next generation of sun creams in his laboratories, added: "We then provide customised advice, such as the sun protection factor and star rating of sun cream patients should buy, and further advice on how to apply it. We also tell patients about behaviour changes they should make to increase their sun protection that would allow them to enjoy the sun but to enjoy it more safely. They can then come back for further tests to see if the changes they have made have had any affect."
The full test includes the skin test and questionnaire analysis but if there is not a healthcare provider nearby then the individual may want to try the questionnaire alone. This will be available online. Prof Birch-Machin would eventually like to see the UK's Department of Health take the service on board and offer it to NHS patients.