Everything you need to know about sun protection
It’s important to know how to protect yourself from the sun
Being sun safe doesn’t mean closeting yourself away indoors every time the sun is shining. There are simple, quick and easy measures you can put in place every day to help protect your skin – your body’s largest organ – from the damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation and help prevent skin cancer.
The sun in Australia and New Zealand vs the rest of the world
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world in the world. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70, and around 2,000 Aussies die from skin cancer each year. So, what is it about the sun in Australia that makes it so dangerous?
The Southern Hemisphere is closer to the sun during our summer than the Northern Hemisphere is during its summer, making the Australian summer sun up to 10% stronger than in the north.
Australia is also close to the equator and experiences a lot of blue-sky days, increasing the time people here spend outdoors.
Sun protection – all you need to know
Sun protection doesn’t just mean slathering on sunscreen (although that's definitely a major part of staying safe from UV rays). SPF is just one part of SunSmart’s five-pronged approach to sun protection, in addition to clothing, a broad-brim hat, sunglasses and (where possible) sticking to shady spaces.
The five ways to protect yourself
When the UV Index is 3 or above, take all five of the recommended sun protection steps:
Slip on some clothing that covers up as much skin as possible. Long-sleeved shirts, long skirts and pants offer the best protection.
Slop on some sunscreen – water-resistant, broad-spectrum, SPF30+ (or higher) is best – 20 minutes before you head outdoors. Don’t forget to reapply every two hours and after you’ve been in the water.
Slap on a hat with a broad brim that will give your face, scalp, ears and neck protection from the sun.
Slide on sunglasses to protect your eyes against eye damage caused by UV radiation, including cataracts, macular degeneration and ocular melanoma. Check if your sunnies meet the Australian Standard for Eye Protection (AS/NZS1067), with category two protection or higher (meaning they’ll absorb more than 95% of UV radiation).
The UV Index and recommendations
The sun’s damaging UV rays are always the strongest during the middle of the day, so as a general rule stay indoors where possible between 10am and 2pm (or 11am and 3pm during daylight saving time). However, specific timing depends on factors such as where you live and the time of year. UV rays are not hot, and radiation can be high on cloudy, cooler days, so it’s important to check the daily UV Index report or SunSmart app before spending time outdoors.
The UV Index describes the strength of the ultraviolet radiation each day. The higher the number, the stronger the radiation and the faster unprotected skin will be damaged. A UV level of 1 or 2 is considered low, 3-5 moderate, 6 and 7 is high, 8 to 10 is very high, and 11 and above is considered extreme levels of UV radiation.
When the UV Index is 3 or above, use sun protection when heading outdoors – and for those who spend most of their time outside (for example, for work), it’s recommended to slip, slop, slap, seek and slide regardless of the UV Index.
What is SPF and UVA/UVB, and why are they
We’re told to use a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30+ (or higher), but what does that all mean?
UVA & UVB
There are two types of harmful UV radiation, but both are involved in sunburn and tanning (a sign your skin is in trauma). UVA also causes premature ageing, while UVB rays can result in the development of skin cancer. Broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against
both types of rays.
SPF stands for ‘sun protection factor’ and is a measure of how much protection a sunscreen offers against UVB radiation. The number tells you how much longer it would take your skin to burn compared to if you used no sunscreen – so for example, if you slop on SPF30 sunscreen, theoretically, it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you didn’t wear sunscreen.
The correct way to apply sunscreen
However, the SPF on the sunscreen label means nothing if the lotion isn’t applied properly. Adults need about 35ml, or seven teaspoons of sunscreen, to adequately cover their whole body. That’s a teaspoon of sunscreen for the head and neck, one for each limb, and one each for the front and back of the body.
It’s also essential to apply sunscreen 20 minutes before you head outside and crucial that you reapply every two hours and after swimming or excessive sweating. Don’t forget to check that your sunscreen hasn’t passed its expiry date and store it in a cool place.
Related: 7 common sunscreen mistakes
Sunscreens for sensitive skin
If you have a reaction to sunscreen, don’t give up on protecting your skin. Try a fragrance-free product or speak to your chemist, GP or dermatologist for advice to find a product that works for you. There are several sunscreens on the market developed for sensitive skin types, as well as specially formulated sunscreens for children and babies, whose skin is more delicate than adults and can also burn more easily. Sunscreen isn’t recommended for babies under six months, who should be kept out of the sun altogether.
What to think about if using cosmetics with SPF protection
While many cosmetics contain SPF, you shouldn’t rely on your makeup alone to keep your skin safe unless it is SPF30 or higher. If you’re heading outdoors, apply a broad-spectrum SPF30+ or higher sunscreen before putting on makeup.
Sunscreen effectiveness – storage and expiration
Sunscreen that is past its expiry date may not provide adequate protection, so it’s always important to check before you start slopping it on. Most sunscreens last for two to three years.
Sunscreen should also be stored below 30-degrees to maintain its effectiveness, so avoid keeping it in the glovebox of a hot car, for instance, or in the sun beside the pool.
Claiming sun protection as a Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) expense
If you work outdoors, you may be eligible to claim sun protection products, such as clothing with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating on your tax return. Speak to your tax advisor or the ATO for more info.
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Dr Hamish Black
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Dr Hamish Black
Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.