Staying sun smart

Staying sun smart in Australia is one of the most important lessons everyone should learn. If you’re going to enjoy the extraordinary natural beauty then you need to be safe. The ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure risk in Australia is much higher than in other countries, especially if you’ve emigrated from the grey-skied UK.

In many countries in the northern hemisphere that experience generally colder temperatures, the education around being sun safe is nowhere near what it is in countries like Australia. Kids from a young age are taught the SunSmart rhyme: “Slip, slop, slap, seek, slide”. This outlines the key features of being sun smart:

  • SLIP on protective clothing
  • SLOP on SPF 30+ sunscreen
  • SLAP on a hat
  • SEEK shade
  • SLIDE on some sunglasses

If this is all you remember then you’ll be well on your way to staying safe in the sun and enjoying Australia to the maximum.

In this article we are going to cover the key facts around being safe in the Australian sun so you can get the most out of your trip or new life in Australia.

Get familiar with the UV index

UV stands for ultraviolet radiation. This is the electromagnetic radiation from the sun that can be damaging to human skin if it becomes overexposed. Whilst also being damaging, it is our best natural source of vitamin D, so we need it in moderation.

It comes in 3 forms: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA and UVB are the two we are concerned about with regards to skin cancer and eye damage. The most dangerous aspect of UV radiation is that you cannot feel it. Yes, you can feel the sun’s heat and see the sun’s light but these do not necessarily correlate to the UV level. For example: you may have a relatively cloudy day but the UV levels may be higher than on a sunny day. The Australian Government reminds you to “think UV, not heat”.

Skin cancer

Australia has one of the highest levels of UV exposure and highest rates of skin cancer in the world. The Cancer Council outlines that your risk of skin cancer from solar UV radiation can depend on several different factors:

  1. The height of the sun or the higher up you are exposes more UV radiation.
  2. The closer you are to the equator, the higher the exposure.
  3. Cloud and ozone coverage: the thicker the coverage the more protected you are.
  4. Finally, how reflective the ground is: water, snow, glass and polished metals all increase surrounding UV radiation. Snow covered places are often the highest risk.

To determine the risk level, you must know the UV Index. This index identifies the strength of the UV radiation and subsequently how much damage it can cause you. You can find out the UV forecast and get UV alerts on many websites and apps but the Cancer Council suggests using As a general rule, if the index is above three, you should be implementing the ‘Sun Smart’ strategies outlined above.

Use sunscreen properly

Sunscreen is considered the last line of defence as it cannot block out 100% of UV rays. The sunscreen should always be factor 30 broad spectrum or above and be labelled water resistant. Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before going out into the sun and reapplied every two hours. You can use the free SunSmart app to help you calculate how much you need.

Fluctuating exposure

The level of UV index during the week and within each day. The local Bureau weather forecast will outline the UV levels and sun protection times. You can access these via the BOM Weather app or MetEye. The free SunSmart app will also be able to give you up to date UV forecasts and current UV levels.

Other risks 

While the risk of exposure to UV radiation is a key factor of being sun smart, you also need to consider the risks of sun stroke and dehydration. Extended periods of sun and heat exposure, especially in an Australian summer, can lead to dehydration and heat stroke surprisingly quickly. Major heat waves can cause more deaths than bushfires.

You should be aiming to drink around two litres of water a day and increase this slightly if you are active or if you are out in the sun. Use the colour of your urine to guide you; your urine should remain straw coloured. If you are thirsty then drink (water), but try not to over consume. Slow and steady wins the race. And it’s worth noting that alcohol doesn’t count!

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