Traveller’s guide to sun safety in Australia

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Australia is home to beautiful beaches, and summer is the best time to experience them. However, it can also be one of the most dangerous times, too. If you're visiting during this time, it's vital to understand sun safety in Australia and the consequences of not following sun safety guidelines.

The sun in Australia

According to the Cancer Council, Australia has one of the world's highest rates of skin cancer, and skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in Australia. Damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation causes skin cancer. UV radiation is a type of energy the sun produces that can't be seen or felt, making it hard to look out for.

Exposure to UV levels is higher due to Australia's proximity to the equator. They are some of the highest levels in the world, according to SunSmart. To put it into context, the average UK summer has a UV index of 6 to 8, while in Australia, it's between 10 and 14. While UV radiation is present every day, it is higher in summer than in winter. 

Why sun safety is important

Excessive UV radiation doesn't just increase your risk of skin cancer caused by accumulative UV exposure over the years. Other harmful effects include:

  • Sunburn: Ten minutes is all it can take for UV radiation to cause burns to the skin, which can cause pain on the skin to touch. Though it heals, the damage is irreversible. It adds to your accumulated UV risk and exposure, increasing the risk of skin cancer.
  • Premature aging: SunSmart reports that "up to 80% of fine lines and wrinkles result from UV damage."
  • Eye damage: UV damage to the eyes can include different eye conditions, such as macular degeneration, cataracts, and even skin cancer of the skin surrounding the eye.

Understanding UV levels

The World Health Organisation's Global Solar UV Index measures UV levels. It runs on a scale from 0 to 11+, with 0 meaning low and 11+ meaning extreme. It's recommended that sun protection is used when UV levels reach moderate levels of 3 or higher.

The UV level can vary due to various factors such as time of day, location, cloud cover, and altitude.

Sun protection times

Sun protection times are issued by SunSmart when it forecasts UV levels as three or higher. You access these times via their free SunSmart app or the Bureau of Meteorology website.

SunSmart advises wearing protective gear for your skin and eyes during these recommended sun protection times. This protective gear includes wearing a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, staying in the shade, and clothing such as long sleeves if you can't find shade.

It can be mistaken to think that just because it is not hot and sunny, we are safe to be outside in the sun without protection. However, UV rays are invisible, can't be felt, and can be high even when the sun isn't shining. It's essential to wear sun protection even on those cloudy days.

If you need more clarification, check the UV for your location. The Cancer Council writes on its website, "If it is below 3, SunSmart doesn't recommend sun protection unless you are outdoors for extended periods or near reflective surfaces, like snow."

For example, in Australia, between 11 am and 3 pm (daylight saving time) is the time that SunSmart recommends sun protection. According to SunSmart, the UV is always highest during this time. This is a SunSmart policy implemented in many workplaces and school settings.

This policy is an example of the steps we can take to prevent damage from the sun's UV radiation. In Australia, this is referred to as SunSmart.

Sun safety steps

To ensure the best protection from the sun, SunSmart provides five steps, which are easy to remember using the "slip, slop, slap, seek and slide" slogan.

  1. Slip on protective clothing. Especially if you can't find shade, try to wear something that covers exposed skin. A light long-sleeved top is an example.

  2. Slop on sunscreen. It is ideal to apply sunscreen to all exposed areas 20 minutes before heading outside. Reapply every two hours or each time you come back from hitting the waters or have been sweating. Use sunscreen with other measures for maximum protection.

  3. Slap on a hat. Ensure you purchase a wide-brimmed hat that covers the back of your neck, and ears and properly shades your face.

  4. Seek shade. Head for cover under a tree or shelter, or if you plan a beach trip, you can purchase a tent. Ensure you use other sun protection measures, as the sun can still reach you via reflection.

  5. Slide on some sunglasses. According to the Cancer Council, "sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat worn together can reduce UV radiation exposure to the eyes by up to 98%." A good guide is to choose those labelled meeting the Australian Standard AS/NSZ 1067.

Choosing the right sunscreen

Australian sunscreens need to comply with the Australian/New Zealand Standards for sunscreen products (AS/NZS 2604:2012). The highest SPF available is SPF50+. However, SPF30 also provides excellent protection.

The Cancer Council recommends using sunscreen for days forecast with a UV Index of 3 or above. There is a range of sunscreen products, ranging from those for sensitive skin to roll-ons and even SPF-containing cosmetics. That said, The Cancer Council advises that cosmetics must be labelled SPF30 or higher to be worn on their own). Otherwise, you need to wear additional sunscreen before your makeup.

Try to choose one that is water resistant for the beach and one labelled broad spectrum as this means it filters both UVA and UVB radiation. UVA radiation causes long-term, ageing damage to the skin, while UVB radiation is the main cause of skin cancer.

However, The Cancer Council doesn't recommend sunscreen for babies younger than six months. Sun safety for babies of this age should be with protective clothing, shade, and a hat.

Tracey Cheung
Written by
Tracey Cheung

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