Sun protection means protecting skin from the harmful effects of the sun. Everyone needs to protect their skin, no matter what colour it is. Even on a cool day or when there are clouds in the sky, the sun can damage skin.
Some sun exposure within safe levels can be beneficial because our skin uses it to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for bone health. It may also help to reduce your risk of certain other diseases, including a number of cancers, although more research needs to be done to be certain. However, too much sun is harmful and can damage your skin, putting you at serious risk of skin cancer. It's important that you get a balance between reducing your risk of skin damage from burning and enjoying the benefits of the sun.
The sun gives out ultraviolet (UV) radiation that is made up of three types of rays: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC rays from the sun can't get through the ozone layer but UVA and UVB rays can. UVA can cause wrinkles, and UVB can cause sunburn and skin cancer.
A tan is actually a sign that your skin has been damaged and is trying to protect itself. UV radiation stimulates your skin to produce more pigment (colour), which protects against damage. Your tan will fade, but the damage to your skin remains.
Short-term overexposure to the sun can burn your skin, usually making it red, hot and painful. You can soothe sunburnt skin with general lotions such as aqueous cream, aloe vera lotion or other after-sun lotions. If your sunburn is severe, you may need medical treatment.
Heat exhaustion is when your body becomes overheated after too much sun or by getting sunburn. You may have the following symptoms:
If you think you have heat exhaustion, get to a cool place as soon as possible and drink plenty of water. If the symptoms don’t get better, or get worse, you should seek medical advice.
Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal if it's not treated.
Ageing of your skin is a result of the UVA rays penetrating it, causing wrinkles and sagging. UV rays can also cause damage to the eyes. Too much sun exposure may even damage your immune system, increasing your risk of becoming ill.
The exact causes of skin cancer aren't fully understood at present; however, your risk of skin cancer increases if you have exposed your skin to UV rays by spending a lot of time in the sun. You may also be more likely to get skin cancer if you have fair skin.
There are two types of skin cancer – melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma skin cancer is the most serious form, but it can be treated if found early. Getting badly burned can increase your risk of melanoma, especially as a child.
There are different types of non-melanoma skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Your risk of BCC is increased if you had repeated sunburn, especially as a child. You may be more likely to get SCC if you are exposed to sun throughout your life; for example if you work outdoors.
Sun protection against skin cancer must be balanced with maintaining healthy vitamin D levels.
It’s important not to forgo wearing sunscreen during peak UV times (10 am to 3 pm or when the UV index is 3 or above) due to concerns about vitamin D deficiency. Most people in Australia will achieve adequate vitamin D levels through their usual day-to-day activities. Only a few minutes of sun exposure to the face, arms and hands (or equivalent skin area) is required on most days in summer outside of peak UV times to generate sufficient vitamin D in the body for a fair-skinned person. The amount of exposure needed for healthy vitamin D levels will partly depend on your skin type (darker skin requires longer exposure), the time of year and which state you are in. For more details about this, visit the Cancer Council Australia website noted in the further information section of this factsheet.
If you are concerned about your vitamin D levels, see your doctor. They will be able to check your vitamin D levels and advise you on whether you will need to supplement your level by taking vitamin D tablets. Don’t take vitamin D supplementation without seeking your doctor’s advice as too much vitamin D can lead to other, sometimes serious, health problems.
The UV index describes the strength of the sun's UV radiation. The numbers range from 1 to 11 and the higher the number, the stronger the UV radiation. In Australia, you will need protection when the UV index is three or above.
To check the UV levels in your area and the times of the day that sun protection is required, consult your state’s Cancer Council website for their UV Alert. Also look out for the SunSmart UV Alert in the weather pages of most daily newspapers. You can also download the free Cancer Council SunSmart app for smartphones.
You can protect your skin by wearing long-sleeved tops and trousers. Choose materials that have a close weave as these block out the most UV rays. Wet clothing stretches and lets more UV radiation through to your skin. You can now buy sun protection factor (SPF) clothing and sunsuits, which help to protect your skin from UV radiation.
Wearing a wide-brimmed hat can reduce the amount of UV radiation reaching your face.
Sunglasses help to protect your eyes and eyelids. Wraparound sunglasses are recommended as they will also protect the skin around your eyes. You should choose a pair of sunglasses that meet the Australian Standard for UV protection.
Always use broad spectrum sunscreen. This means that it protects your skin against UVA and UVB rays. Make sure it has a SPF of 30 . The SPF tells you how good the sunscreen is at filtering out the UVB rays. Sunscreen can't give you complete protection since some UV rays will always get through, but you will get more than 90 percent protection from UVB rays with SPF 15 or higher.
Use sunscreens generously. You should use about two teaspoons of sunscreen for your head, neck and arms, and two tablespoons for your whole body when wearing a swimsuit. Sunscreen should be applied about 15–20 minutes before you go out and re-applied every two hours, or more often if you go swimming or sweat a lot. Water reflects the sun's rays so you need to apply sunscreen before swimming. You can use a water-resistant sunscreen for swimming or if you participate in water sports, are active or likely to sweat a lot.
Cloud doesn't stop the sun's UV rays getting through so you should protect yourself even if it's cloudy. Haze (from thin clouds or mist) can even increase your UV radiation exposure because the rays are scattered.
Where possible, you should seek out shady areas under trees, and use umbrellas or canopies when outdoors.
You should check your moles regularly for changes that may indicate skin cancer. Most changes are harmless, but you should see your GP if you notice: • growth of an existing mole – especially over 7 mm (a quarter of an inch) in diameter
Sunbeds mimic the effect of the sun and give out artificial UVA and UVB radiation. Exposure to artificial UV radiation can also damage your skin. Sunbeds have been linked to premature wrinkles and an increased risk of skin cancer. They can also damage your eyes.
An artificial tan from a sunbed doesn't protect your skin against sunburn on holiday; it's similar to using a sunscreen with SPF 2 to 3.
There are no regulations relating to the use of sunbeds, but the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that you should never use a sunbed if you:
You can't feel UV rays. The warmth you feel on your skin is actually caused by the sun's infrared radiation. So just because you can't feel the hot rays of the sun, it doesn't mean you won't get sunburnt.
The amount of UV radiation is generally lower during the winter but snow reflects most of the sun's rays, so you can still get sunburnt. If you're high up in the mountains, there is less atmosphere to block out the UV rays so make sure you use sunscreen.
Young skin is sensitive and very easily damaged by the sun. Getting sunburnt as a child is known to increase the risk of developing melanoma and basal cell carcinoma as an adult.
It's usually safe for older children to spend short spells in the sun, as long as it's not enough for them to burn. However, if your child is going to be in the sun for longer than a few minutes, you will need to protect their skin from burning. Make sure they stay in the shade when possible. Dress your child in loose-fitting clothes that cover up their arms and legs. A hat with a brim at the front and a cloth flap that covers the neck provides good sun protection. Sunglasses will help to protect your child's eyes.
Use water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 on all exposed areas of your child's skin and apply generously every couple of hours. If you take your child swimming, re-apply the sunscreen after towel drying. UV protection swimwear is also a good way of protecting your child.
You should be more careful with babies and toddlers as they can burn very easily. Keep your baby in complete shade. Pop-up shelters are a good way to protect your child from the sun on the beach or in the garden. Canopies and parasols for prams and buggies protect your child when you're out and about.
Fake tanning lotions are a popular alternative to sunbathing and sun beds. The tanning lotion reacts with your skin and produces a brown pigment. Fake tan needs to be re-applied regularly if you want to maintain your tan, because your outer skin cells are shed naturally as your skin grows.
Some fake tanning lotions contain sun protection but the SPF is usually very low, so you should also wear broad spectrum SPF30 sunscreen when you're out in the sun.
Although fake tanning lotions aren't known to be dangerous, they can sometimes trigger an allergic reaction.
Always test the lotion on a small area of your skin first to see if you have a reaction.
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Last published: 31 March 2012
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