Sun safety - how much is too much?

Some exposure to sunlight is essential for your health, but too much can be dangerous.
 
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  • Updated:10 Oct 2005
 

02.How much sun do you need?

You need some exposure to sunshine

Your body needs sunlight to produce vitamin D, which helps strengthen your bones and muscles and may also help prevent diseases such as multiple sclerosis and certain cancers. Your diet will provide some vitamin D, mainly from fatty fish (such as salmon and mackerel), liver and some fortified foods like margarine, but most of your needs come from exposure to sunlight.  

How much sun should you get?

Surprisingly little, according to a recent study by Australian universities. In summer in most Australian cities, you need as little as five to seven minutes a day (at mid-morning or mid-afternoon, outside the hottest part of the day). Even in southern areas like Melbourne and Hobart you only need eight or nine minutes at most. And that’s not on your whole body, either: just on your face, hands and arms is enough. (This assumes a moderately fair skin.)

Groups at risk of inadequate sun exposure

Most of us probably get more than enough sun, but some people are at risk of not getting enough. They include:

  • Elderly or infirm people who live mostly indoors and can’t get outdoors much.
  • Dark-skinned people: dark skin needs more sun to make vitamin D than fair skin.
  • Women who wear veils and covering clothing as part of their culture or religion.
  • People with skin cancer or conditions (such as lupus) where sun avoidance is necessary. They need to strike a careful balance between necessary and harmful time in the sun, and may need dietary supplements to keep up their vitamin D levels.
 

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Optimum time for sun exposure

Recommended sun exposure times
(minutes, in order of shortest to longest times in winter)*
REGION WINTER:
Jul–Aug, at
10 am or 2 pm
WINTER:
Jul–Aug, at noon
SUMMER:
Dec–Jan, at
11 am or 3 pm**
Cairns (A) 9–12 7 6–7
Townsville (A) 9–13 7 5–7
Brisbane (A) 15–19 11 6–7
Perth (A) 20–28 15 5–6
Adelaide 25–38 19 5–7
Sydney 26–28 16 6–8
Melbourne 32–52 25 6–8
Hobart 40–47 29 7–9

 

Results of too much sun exposure

Some sunlight is good for you, but too much exposure to UVR and you can pay a heavy price.

  • Tanning: A suntan may seem desirable, but in fact it’s a sign of skin damage. A natural tan does give a bit of sun protection, but only about SPF 4. Solarium tans provide even less protection.
  • Premature aging: Ongoing tanning can lead to your skin aging prematurely — becoming dry and wrinkled — and may lead to skin cancers.
  • Sunburn is like any burn, painful and damaging to your skin. If you notice sunburn appearing on your skin, it’s too late to start slapping on sunscreen — the damage is already done. Get out of the sun and drink plenty of water in case you’ve become dehydrated too. If the burn is painful, bathe it in cool water. Apply moisturiser or a sunburn treatment to the affected areas. For severe sunburn, or if you feel faint or nauseous, get medical help immediately.
  • Skin cancer: The worst possible result of too much sun. There are three main types:
    • basal cell carcinoma
    • squamous cell carcinoma
    • melanoma

Of these, melanoma is the deadliest and can spread quickly. Skin cancer comes not just from the damage done to skin by UVR, but also from the way UVR suppresses your immune system, weakening your defences against cancer.

Although detection and treatment of skin cancer has greatly improved in the last 20 years, around 1300 Australians still die each year from skin cancer. Check your skin regularly for suspicious spots, such as non-healing sores, red or pale lumps, or a mole or freckle that changes colour or size. If you find any suspicious spots, ask your doctor about them.