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How to be SunSmart this summer

Medical & health articles 22 Jan 2019
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There are many myths when it comes to being safe in the sun. And now that we're halfway through summer, it's a good time to clear up the confusion.

We spoke to Justine Osborne from Cancer Council Victoria's SunSmart program to sort fact from fiction on how to best protect yourself while still having fun in the sun.

Know the basics

Sun exposure can be a tricky topic, but it's also a serious health issue for our 'sunburnt country', so it's important to know the basics.

"In Australia, 95-99% of skin cancers are caused by overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation," says Ms Osborne.

And while this is a startling statistic, "the good news is, this means that most skin cancers can also be prevented by using good sun protection," she says.

If you think the steps to sun protection are simply, 'Slip, Slop, Slap", think again: two extra 'S steps' complete the total five steps in the current guidelines:

  1. Slip on covering clothing
  2. Slop on SPF30 (or higher) broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen
  3. Slap on a hat that shades your face, ears and neck
  4. Seek shade; and
  5. Slide on sunglasses (make sure they have AS1067 on the label).
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When UV is 3

So do we need to 'Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide' all day every day? Ms Osborne says to keep in mind the number 3 when working out your need for protection.

"When the UV level is 3 or higher, it's recommended you use sun protection," she says. "In southern states of Australia, the UV level is generally 3 or higher every day between mid-August and the end of April.

"If the UV level is less than 3, most people don't need sun protection, unless they're at the snow, near a highly reflective surface (such as water), or an outdoor worker (their skin cancer risk is higher, so year-round sun protection is recommended whatever the weather)."

An easy way to check the UV levels for any time, any day, is with the SunSmart app, available for free download on the App Store (iOS) and Google Play (Android).

Simply select your location on the app, and it will tell you the current UV level, the maximum UV level for the day, and the times at which sun protection is recommended.

Harmful or healthful?

Ms Osborne says one of the common misconceptions is about the benefits and risks of sun exposure.

"UV radiation is the major cause of skin cancer, but you also need some exposure to be able to make vitamin D, which is important for healthy bones, muscles and overall health," she says.

"During the warmer months, most people will make enough vitamin D because UV levels are high and we spend more time outdoors."

But importantly though, more exposure doesn't always equal more vitamin D, explains Ms Osborne.

"The body can only absorb a limited amount of vitamin D at a time, so spending extra time in the sun won't increase vitamin D levels, but can increase your risk of skin cancer."

Fake it, don't bake it

A suntan was once considered a sign of good health, but Ms Osborne sets the record straight.

"There's no such thing as a healthy suntan," she says. "It's a sign of UV damage – not healthy skin. At SunSmart, we encourage everyone to own their natural skin tone and take care of it.

However, as Ms Osborne says, "if you must have a tan, it's much better to fake it, not 'bake' it," by using fake tan products rather than sunbaking.

"If you use fake tan, remember that you will still need to protect your skin with the five SunSmart steps," she says. "If you choose a fake tan with an SPF rating, this will only protect for up to two hours and not the life of the fake tan."

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Spotting the signs of skin cancer

Good sun protection is the first step in preventing skin cancer, but it's also important to be able to spot any potential signs of skin cancer if they occur.

Ms Osborne explains that most skin cancer can be successfully treated if it is found early. However, if left undetected and untreated, skin cancer can be deadly.

For this reason, getting to know your skin and what looks normal for you is vital in helping you to find changes earlier.

"Get into the habit of checking your skin regularly," says Ms Osborne. "Check all of your skin, not just sun-exposed areas. If you notice anything unusual, including any new spots, or change in shape, colour or size of a spot, visit your doctor as soon as possible."

Even if you have naturally darker skin, checking your skin regularly is still important, she says. "Although your risk of melanoma [skin cancer] is lower, it's more likely to be found at a later, more dangerous stage than people with lighter skin."

The sneaky ways of UV rays (even on cloudy days)

As parting advice, Ms Osborne advises all women to know the sneaky ways of invisible UV rays.

"Unlike the sun's light and warmth, UV radiation can't be seen or felt," she says. "So don't just wait for a sunny or hot day to use sun protection.

"UV levels can be as high on a cool or cloudy day as they are on a hot day. Check the sun protection times [on the SunSmart app] so you're not caught out."

Read more about skin cancer, UV radiation and how to protect your skin on the SunSmart website, and play it safe this summer.