6 Sun Safety Tips to Help You Love Your Summer
Nothing spoils a summer break more easily than sunburn. Here are the latest sun safety facts to keep you happy and comfortable at home or away.
It’s never been easier to protect yourself from the harsh Australian sun – so why are skin cancer rates still growing?
We’ve got better sunscreens, UV forecasts, and more awareness than ever that sunburn and UV exposure cause skin cancer.
And yet the number of people with melanoma – the most serious type of skin cancer – is still increasing. Melanoma Australia estimates that in the year just gone:
- 14,320 Australians were diagnosed with melanoma, making it the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer
- nearly 2,000 died from the disease
- both the number of melanomas, and the number of deaths from melanoma, were higher than they were two years previously
Melanoma is only one type of skin cancer. Each year, hundreds of thousands more people need treatment for basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma – less serious forms of skin cancer for which rates aren’t reported.
Most skin cancers are diagnosed in older people – people who, as children, didn’t have access to the kinds of sun protection we have today. Still, Cancer Council Australia estimates that even now, on any given weekend in summer, one in five teenagers and one in eight adults gets sunburnt.
With such sunburn a major risk factor for melanoma – and good evidence that sunscreen helps prevent melanoma – there’s plenty you can do to protect the skin you live in and stay healthy and younger looking for longer. Enjoy being out and about this summer with these sun safe tips:
1) The 5 Ss of sun safety
Whenever you’re going out for more than a few minutes and the UV index is 3 or higher (that’s most of the day in Sydney in summer!) you should:
- Slip on protective clothing
- Slop on SPF 30 or higher broad-spectrum water-resistant sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going out in the sun, and reapply every two hours or after sweating and swimming
- Slap on a hat that shades your face, neck and ears
- Seek shade
- Slide on sunglasses to prevent eye damage Not sure what the index is? Don’t guess – use the SunSmart app, as it can be high even on cloudy or cool days.
2) Provide extra sun protection for babies
Getting sunburnt as a child increases your risk of melanoma later in life – more, it seems, than getting sunburnt as an adult does.
Children should follow the above sun protection advice even more closely. The only exception is babies under six months old, who the Australasian College of Dermatologists say shouldn’t regularly use chemical sunscreens, and who should be dressed in protective clothing and kept out of strong sun instead.
3) Find the best sunscreen for you
You might be a bit sensitive to sunscreens, and a very small number of people are allergic to them. If you’re struggling to find one that suits you a dermatologist can help. There are now lots of different ingredients used, and it’s unlikely you’ll be sensitive to all of them.
Sunscreens aren’t dangerous – not for adults, and not for children either. You might have heard concerns about nanoparticles in sunscreens (very tiny particles of titanium oxide or zinc oxide). The Therapeutic Goods Administration has reviewed research into these and concluded that they don’t penetrate deep into the skin, and aren’t a health risk. But are sunscreens a threat to coral reefs? In Hawaii, they’ve banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which have been shown to be harmful to coral in lab tests. These aren’t banned in Australia (it’s been pointed out that global warming is a vastly bigger threat to our reefs that we could focus on) but they are being phased out by some brands.
4) Never trust a tan
Remember the saying, there’s no such thing as a healthy tan? It’s true – tanning is a sign of UV trauma. It also offers very little protection from sunburn (about the same as an SPF3 sunscreen). Given that frequent sun exposure (not just sunburn) contributes to skin cancer, any protective benefits are outweighed by the dangers.
If you have dark skin, there’s frustratingly little research about your skin cancer risk in Australia. However, evidence from the USA suggests that if you do get melanoma, the survival rate is lower. It’s also still possible to get sunburnt. So the 5 Ss apply even if you have dark skin – although you may need to talk to a doctor about vitamin D supplements.
5) Get enough vitamin D safely
UV radiation is the main cause of skin cancer, but it’s also how your body makes vitamin D. And we now know that getting enough vitamin D isn’t just important for bone health, but seems to be important for heart, respiratory and immune health, too.
Around one in three Australians are vitamin D deficient to some degree. Because of this dilemma, experts have come up with some general recommendations.
- UV index above 3 (most of the day during summer) – wear a broad brimmed hat, covering clothing, sunscreen and sunglasses when outdoors for more than a few minutes, and seek shade (even if you have a diagnosed vitamin D deficiency)
- In autumn/winter (in southern Australia and only if the UV index is below 3) – get outdoors in the middle of the day with some skin uncovered and unprotected most days of the week
- If you’re vitamin D deficient or worried that you are, talk to your GP about testing and supplements The SunSmart app can help you remember when to wear sunscreen – it will also customise information based on where you live and your skin tone.
6) Go for a skin check
For melanoma, treatment options are good if it is picked up quickly. Around 91 per cent of people will still be alive five years after a melanoma diagnosis – sadly, this drops quickly if the cancer is left to spread.
Some people therefore choose to have regular skin checks. As doctor will use specialist equipment to check your spots, discuss your individual risk and talk about what to look out for in a spot or lesion. We offer whole-body skin checks with a GP at our clinic.
Cancer Council Australia recommends regular skin checks for people who are at particularly high risk, but they aren’t necessary for everyone.
The most important thing is to be familiar with your skin (including skin you can’t see, and skin not normally exposed to the sun) and see a doctor if you notice changes in shape, colour or size of a lesion or spot, or a new lesion or spot.
We hope you have lots of sun-safe fun this summer, wherever you are under the sun.