Australia experiences some of the highest levels of UV radiation in the world because we are close to the equator and have many clear, blue-sky days.
As such, sun protection for our skin is vital to help protect us from sunburn and skin cancer – especially when you consider that roughly two out of every three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer before the age of 70¹.
Sunburn is a result of too much exposure to UV radiation. While you can see the sunlight and feel the heat, you cannot feel the radiation. This means that people are often burnt without realising it.
Understanding SPF, UVA, UVB and UVC
When sunlight hits the Earth’s surface, it does so via three bands of ultraviolet radiation; UVA, UVB and UVC.
- UVA (Ultraviolet A) rays are ‘long-wave’ and penetrate deep into your skin’s inner layer, these can lead to longer-term skin issues such as wrinkles, sun spots and ageing.
- UVB (Ultraviolet B) rays are ‘short-wave’ and affect the outer layers of your skin. These cause sunburn and are a common cause of skin cancers.
- UVC (Ultraviolet C) rays are actually the most dangerous rays, but thankfully our ozone layer stops them from penetrating through to us.
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The higher a sunscreen’s SPF, the more UVB radiation it filters. Sunscreens labelled ‘broad-spectrum’ are also protective against UVA.
Properly applied, SPF30 sunscreens filter out 96.7% of UVB, while SPF50 filters out 98%. Most types of sunscreen must be reapplied every two hours to maintain the optimum level of protection, however it’s best to always read the label and use as directed as it may change.
Your TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacist can help
Your TerryWhite Chemmart pharmacist can provide you with expert advice about taking care of yourself in the sun and recommend the best sunscreen to suit you and your needs. We have a wide range of products to help you protect yourself and your family from harmful UV rays, all at great prices.
How to best protect yourself from the sun
1. Obey the 5 S’s
Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide.
That is, SLIP on clothing, SLOP on SPF30 or higher sunscreen, SLAP on a hat, SEEK shade and SLIDE on sunnies.
Essentially, aim to have something in between you and the sun at all times. A t-shirt will provide better protection than a singlet, for example. Where skin is showing (and no shade is available), apply sunscreen that’s at least SPF30 and remember to apply regularly.
2. Watch the clock
Did you know UV rays are at their worst between 10am and 3pm? Give yourself the best chance to avoid skin damage from the sun by staying in the shade between these times.
You don’t need to stay confined inside on nice days, though. Find a café, restaurant or ice cream shop with a covered outdoor area and enjoy the weather while staying protected.
3. Apply sunscreen before getting dressed
Applying when you’re already wearing clothes can make it difficult to know for certain you’ve covered everywhere. When you ‘Slap’ prior to dressing, all the areas you need to get are much more easily-accessible.
An added bonus of doing this is you give the sunscreen more of a chance to ‘seep in’ to your skin and provide better protection. Ideally, you really need to around 20 minutes or more between application and heading out into the sun.
4. Be aware of UV’s sneakiness
Oh look, it’s a cloudy day. That means you’re fine and don’t need any sun protection, right? Sure, if you want to end up looking like an over-cooked lobster! UV rays can pass through clouds and still damage your skin, possibly even more so than clear skies due to the clouds’ reflection².
So, even when there’s cloud cover, make sure you obey the 5 S’s if you’re heading outside.
5. Understand what a tan really is
When sunbathing, you’re purposefully damaging your skin’s DNA. The tan colour is your skin’s defence mechanism to prevent any further damage from happening while simultaneously repairing itself.
Sunburn First Aid
Sunburn is a result of too much exposure to UV radiation. While you can see the sunlight and feel the heat, you cannot feel the radiation. This means that people are often burnt without realising it. Signs of sunburn include:
- Red skin
- Swollen areas
- Skin painful to touch
- Blistered areas
- Chills, fever, nausea and vomiting can occur if the sunburn covers a lot of your body and is severe.
Sunburn should not be taken lightly. It is radiation burn to the skin and any type of sunburn (whether mild or severe) can cause permanent and irreversible skin damage that can result in skin cancer.
There are different degrees of sunburn:
- First degree. Mild sunburn that reddens and inflames the skin.
- Second degree. More serious reddening and water blisters.
- Third degree. This requires medical attention. Symptoms can include blistering, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or severe pain.
The amount of sun exposure required to cause sunburn varies from person to person, but generally people with fairer skin burn more quickly. While you can’t cure sunburn, there are some ways to ease the pain if you have had too much sun.
- Drink plenty of water – if you’ve been out in the sun, you’re probably dehydrated
- Cool the affected areas with clean towels, cloths or gauze dipped in cool water – or take a cool bath or shower
- Rest in a cool, quiet room
- Take some painkillers if necessary. A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen can help with discomfort and inflammation
- Ask your pharmacist about products that may soothe the burn. An over-the-counter cortisone cream can help calm redness and swelling and aloe vera gel may also soothe mild burns
- Wear loose, soft breathable clothing that doesn’t aggravate your skin
- Moisturise your skin – while this won’t prevent peeling, it will boost moisture levels in the layers of skin underneath the burn
- Avoid prolonged periods in the sun
You should not:
- Use soap on your skin as this may aggravate it
- Apply butter to sunburnt skin
- Pop blisters as this may lead to infection
- Peel or pick at the skin – let it peel off by itself
- Go in the sun until all signs of the sunburn have disappeared
If you have severe sunburn and experience blistering, headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or severe pain, you should call a doctor immediately.
When it comes to sunburn, prevention really is better than cure. Be aware of how much time you spend in the sun and take measures to cover up if you are outdoors for long periods of time, especially during peak UV times – your skin will thank you for it.
Types of skin cancer
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and it’s actually our most common cancer³. There are three types of skin cancer:
Melanoma. The most aggressive and serious of the three, this begins in the cells of the skin and can travel to other parts of the body. It usually presents as either a new spot on the skin, or an existing spot changing in appearance or itching or bleeding.
Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC). This is the most common type of skin cancer and generally has a low chance of spreading to other areas of the body. It can appear as a painless lump on the skin or a dry, shiny area that’s bright pink or pale in colour.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC). The less common of the two non-melanoma skin cancers, squamous cell carcinoma is also unlikely to spread to other parts of the body. Signs to look out for include:
- A growing lump
- Tender area
- A raised scaly lump
- Thickened, scaly and firm area
- The appearance of an unhealed sore
General advice only – this information should not replace the information provided to you by your health care professional. If symptoms are severe or persist, please speak to your health care professional. Information current as of date of publishing.
Always check with your pharmacist or medical professional before starting any new medications or supplements, particularly if you have any pre-existing medical conditions, are taking any medications currently, are pregnant or breastfeeding, or researching therapies suitable for infants or children.