It's a pretty outdoorsy life in Australia, and we've been hearing the message of 'slip, slop, slap' for a while now. But sun protection doesn't start and end with sunblock, a shirt and a hat. We take a look at some other ways you can protect yourself from the sun, help you understand how much sun you need to keep your vitamin D levels good, and explain how to safely expose yourself to the sun and what happens when you get too much of a good thing.

But first, a quick quiz: does fake tan protect you from the sun? Read on to find out.

How does the sun hurt us?

Sunlight is made up of various types of radiation - mostly visible light and infrared heat that reaches the earth's surface. Ultraviolet radiation, or UVR, is the most dangerous for your skin.

There are three types of UVR:

  • UVA penetrates the skin, causes wrinkles and discolouration, and has been implicated in skin cancer.

  • UVB is the most dangerous type, even though it's mostly blocked by the earth's ozone layer. Exposure to UVB causes sunburn, which can lead to permanent skin damage and cancer.

  • UVC is less dangerous to skin and is almost completely absorbed by the ozone layer, so it's not a major cause for concern.

How to protect yourself from the sun

Self-defence

It's not hard to protect yourself from sunburn. Sunscreen, the right clothing, a hat and sunglasses and a bit of common sense are the best place to start.

  • Keep out of the sun between 10am and 2pm (or 11am and 3pm during daylight saving).
  • Stay in the shade. But watch out for reflected UVR: indoor or grassy areas generally have less reflected UVR and therefore give better protection than areas with bright reflective surfaces like concrete, sand, snow or water.
  • Clouds absorb or scatter some UVR, but not all of it. You can still get sunburnt on cool or cloudy days.
  • Watch the UV index on weather reports as a guide to how much sun protection you'll need each day.

Sunscreens

If you're not using about six teaspoons of sunscreen (as shown in the image to the right) every time you put it on your whole body, you're probably not getting enough UV protection.

  • SPF 30+ or higher is best. 30+ blocks about 97% of the sun's rays. SPF factors up to 50+ will block more harmful UVR, but the time you can spend in the sun without damage is determined by your skin type and the UVR count that day. It's unwise to rely on sunscreens alone, and don't feel that you can hang out in the sun longer than recommended just because you're using a higher-SPF formula. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. See SPF and UPF explained.
  • Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect you against both UVA and UVB, ordinary sunscreens against UVB only.
  • Water-resistant sunscreens are important if you're swimming, because UVR penetrates water for up to a metre. Reapply the sunscreen every two hours and after each swim (you're likely to towel off some of it anyway).
  • Use enough. There's reasonable evidence that a lot of people don't. About six teaspoons (30mL) of sunscreen is needed for your whole body, so if your head, neck, arms and legs (and maybe midriff or lower back, if you're bending over a lot and work outdoors) are all bared to the sun on a normal day, you'll need something close to that amount. It's a good idea to apply it once on the bits that aren't under clothing 20 minutes before you plan to go out, and once again just before you go. You'll get better coverage, probably be using something closer to the right amount, and you'll be giving enough time for the sunscreen to interact and bond with your skin before exposure. Don't rub it into your skin; it should glide on like a coat of paint.
  • Store your sunscreen in a cool place, as it can lose effectiveness if left somewhere hot like a car's glovebox for long periods. Throw away sunscreens that are past their expiry date, or that have gone gluggy or separated. The active ingredient may still be OK, but it may not spread evenly on your skin, which could result in patchy sunburn.
  • Don't forget your lips, where sunscreen can wear off quickly. Alternatives are a lip balm with a high SPF, or a thick zinc or titanium oxide sunblock.
  • Manufacturers of sunscreens of SPF 4 or higher have to be licensed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and demonstrate that their products meet the claimed SPF, so you can be pretty confident that any SPF 30+ or SPF 50+ broad-spectrum sunscreen will do the job. Choose according to price and your personal preference.
  • Sunscreens are quite safe, but young kids and people with sensitive skin may benefit from a low-irritant version. If you have concerns about nanoparticles in sunscreens have a look at Nanoparticles explained.

Clothing

  • Medium-weight clothing will protect the areas it covers. Clothes that are too lightweight or have worn thin won't give good protection.
  • Dark-coloured fabric usually provides better UV protection than light colours (which let in more light unless the material is thick enough to ensure the light is mostly reflected). But don't worry about this too much; a good medium or heavyweight white T-shirt, for example, will still protect your back.
  • To protect yourself in the water, wear a shirt while swimming, but if it goes transparent when wet it'll be less protective. Consider special high-UPF swimwear, designed to be sunproof even in the water. (UPF is the clothing equivalent of SPF – see SPF and UPF explained.)
  • A broad-brimmed hat or legionnaire-style cap with a neck-drape, or even a scarf around your head and neck, will help protect your face and neck.

Sunglasses

Your eyes can also be damaged by long-term exposure to UVR, so put on a good pair of sunglasses along with your shirt, hat and sunscreen.

  • Look for sunglasses labelled general-purpose or specific-purpose with traditional brown or grey lenses (rather than fashion or unlabelled sunglasses), as these offer the best UV protection.
  • Ideally choose larger lenses: at least as big as a 50 cent coin, with a wraparound style to cover the top and sides of your eyes.
  • Normal prescription glasses (especially those with polycarbonate plastic lenses) give some UV protection, but for maximum protection consider getting prescription sunglasses as well. Alternatively, have your usual glasses treated with a clear UV-protective coating.

Can nutrition help?

There's evidence to suggest that a low-fat, high-fibre diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit and not too much red meat reduces the risk of certain types of cancer, and of course it'll help keep you healthy generally. However, connections between nutrition and skin cancer in particular aren't well understood, though one study has suggested that vitamin A may help reduce melanoma risk in some people.

Don't shun the sun entirely

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 vitamin D comes from exposure to sunlight.

How much sun should you get?

You need surprisingly little sun exposure, 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 Australians 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.
  • people with dark skin, who need more sun to make vitamin D than fair-skinned people.
  • 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.

For more info, you can check out our report on Vitamin D deficiency.

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 9–12 7 6–7
Townsville 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 get too much exposure to UVR and you can pay a heavy price.

Tanning

A suntan may be perceived as attractive or fashionable, but in fact it's a sign of skin damage. A natural tan does give a bit of sun protection, but only the equivalent of about SPF 4. Solarium tans provide even less protection, and fake tan offers no protection at all.

Premature aging

Ongoing tanning can lead to your skin aging prematurely, as it becomes dry, saggy and wrinkled. You may like the look of a tan when you're young, but you'll look younger longer if you protect your skin well.

Sunburn

Like any burn, sunburn is 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

Skin cancer is 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 past 20 years, in Australia in 2010, 11,405 people were diagnosed with melanoma and in 2011, 2087 people died 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.

SPF and UPF explained

SPF: Sun Protection Factor

The sun protection factor (SPF) refers to the increased time it takes you to get sunburnt. A properly applied coat of SPF 30+ sunscreen will keep you burn-free for 30 times longer than normal, so if you'd normally get mild sunburn in 10 minutes, the SPF 30 sunscreen will – in theory – keep you burn-free for 300 minutes, or five hours. (Not that it's wise to spend that much time in the sun even with sunscreen on, especially if your skin is really so fair it would normally start to burn in 10 minutes. It just gives you a sense of the safety margin sunscreen can give you.)

In any case it's a good idea to reapply sunscreen every two hours, because water and sweat wash away the coating on your skin.

The highest claimable SPF rating in Australia is 50+ which means it can block 98% of the sun's rays. A sunscreen with SPF 30+ will block 96.7%. Either one will provide protection if applied properly and if you're only going to be in the sun for a short period.

SPF multiplies, so if you've covered yourself with SPF 30+ sunscreen, then put on a light shirt (the equivalent of say, SPF 5), you've got SPF 150 protection.

UPF: Ultraviolet Protection Factor

The ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) is for clothing and shadecloth: a shirt with a UPF of 20 allows only one twentieth of the UVR through to your skin. UPF ratings go up to 50, and a fabric with a rating higher than 50 is labelled as UPF 50+.

Different fabrics have different UVR-absorbing properties: generally, the thicker the fabric, the tighter the weave and the darker the colour, the more UVR that is blocked. Clothes and swimsuits are available in high-UPF fabrics; look for a label showing they pass the Australian standard AS/NZS 4399.