Babies are often exposed to the harmful rays of the sun as a result of ignorance or neglect by their parents or caregivers. Adolescents and young adults are also exposing themselves to the sun, often in an innocent, if ill-advised, attempt to get a tan. In recent years the number of teens attempting to get a suntan have reduced significantly, but the message of sun safety has yet to reach a large majority of young adults.

Sun exposure, UV radiation and
skin cancer

Sun exposure has undeniable and sometimes deadly consequences. Unprotected time spent out of doors exposes the skin to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, a type of energy emitted by the sun. UV rays are broken down into UVA, UVB and UVC according to their wavelengths. UVC, which has the shortest wavelength, is mostly absorbed by the protective ozone layer around the earth. Both UVA and UVB radiation can penetrate the atmosphere and cause a lot of damage.

Sunstroke, sunburn, premature aging of the skin, cataracts and other eye damage are the most concretely obvious results. Less obviously, UV rays can have a suppressing effect on our immune system, making us less able to fend off infections.

UV rays are a human carcinogen. Excessive exposure damages cellular DNA in the skin and can cause mutations that can lead to cancer. UV radiation is the primary cause of many skin cancers, including squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma. It also plays a key role in causing the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma.

UVA rays make up about 95 percent of the UV radiation reaching the earth, and Australians are exposed to huge amounts of UVA over a lifetime. UVA rays are present in equal intensity during daylight hours all around the year. They can penetrate clouds and even glass. UVA penetrates the skin deeply and plays a large role in ageing the skin, causing wrinkling or photo ageing and non-melanoma skin cancers. UVA is the predominant form of radiation used in tanning beds, and the people who use them are 2.5 times more likely to get squamous cell carcinoma than people who don’t. Tanning bed users are also 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. Worst of all, the use of tanning beds by young people increases their risk of melanoma by about 75 percent.

In early February this year, the NSW government banned the use of all tanning beds from 2014. Hopefully this will cause tanning bed users to see how serious the danger is and cease tanning altogether.

Australia has the highest skin cancer rate in the world, four times higher than the US, the UK or Canada. Australians are four times more likely to get skin cancer than any other form of cancer; and skin cancer accounts for nearly 80 percent of newly diagnosed cancers each year.

Sunburn and reddening of the skin are caused mostly by UVB, which damages the more superficial layers of the skin. While UVB rays are strong during summer, they can damage your skin all year round. UVB rays cannot penetrate glass in large amounts.

Using sunscreen

Slop on some sunscreen.

Sunscreen is not a suit of armour that protects you from UV radiation. It is only one method of avoiding sun exposure. To be safe, use an effective sunscreen together with the other means of sun safety suggested by the Cancer Council: slip on a long sleeve shirt and slap on a hat.

How to choose a sunscreen

Sunscreen lotions, oils, sticks, gels, sprays and creams are all effective, if you choose them with care and know their limitations. Mandy Gray, founder and director of True Solutions International advises “when looking to purchase a sun protection product, you need to ensure it offers high protection from both UVB and UVA rays. Choose a sunscreen that contains at least 6% zinc for maximum protection. If you can get a product with moisturising and antioxidant benefits, like Vitamin E, this is a bonus when choosing your products.”

Check product details on the label to ensure it has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or greater. SPF measures the extent of protection and indicates how long you can stay outside without burning while you are wearing it. The higher the SPF, the better the protection.

The SPF also indicates the percentage level of protection from UV rays. An SPF of 40 will protect you from about 97.5 percent of UV rays that reach your skin. SPF 30 provides 97 percent protection, and the UV protection from SPF 15 is 92 percent. Regardless of the SPF rating, no sunscreen alone can give 100 percent protection. And remember: Just because you don’t feel sunburnt does not mean your skin hasn’t been damaged. Damage can occur without any visible signs, and is cumulative.

A good sunscreen to try is True Solutions Total Age Protector SPF30+, which has both Zinc and Vitamin E.  You can use tinted varieties of this sunscreen as a light foundation.

The newest generation of sun protection comes from the brand PRIORI, in the form of their skin perfecting mineral makeup with SPF15+. This new makeup product contains CoffeeBerry, a powerful antioxidant, and reduces redness, pigmentation, fine lines and dryness.


Use sunscreen on all exposed skin surfaces. Most people fail to get maximum protection because they do not use enough.  Sunscreen protection is not long lasting. It should be reapplied every two hours, more frequently on windy days, or if you are sweating or swimming.

This is the one we all forget: Apply sunscreen half an hour to 20 minutes before going out in the sun.

How sunscreens work

Sunscreens provide protection by acting as either a physical or chemical filter.

Physical blockers block both UVA and UVB rays. They contain micro-particles of metal substances, usually titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which remain on the surface of the skin and reflect UV radiation away. They do not wear off as quickly as chemical blockers but do get washed off by water or sweat.

Sunscreens with chemical blockers work by binding with skin cells and absorbing UV radiation. The absorbed energy is then dispersed as heat before it can damage the cells. Chemical blockers such as the cinnamates, benzophenes and salicylates protect the skin from both UVA and UVB radiation. It takes a little time for the chemical filters to bind to the skin, so put the sunscreen on at least 20 minutes before you go outside.


The Therapeutic Goods Administration tested all sunscreens available in Australia and found them to be both safe and effective. If you develop a rash, however, or your skin stings or becomes irritated when you use a particular brand of sunscreen, stop using it and try another brand. If your skin is sensitive, buy fragrance-free sunscreens.

Australians’ ageing skin

Research shows that Australians can suffer from premature ageing of the skin as early as their 20s, and about 80 percent of that ageing is due to sun exposure. Wearing sunscreen as part of a daily skin care routine is an effective way to prevent ageing and premature wrinkling.

Supplement sunscreen protection with protective clothing, hats and sunglasses, seeking shade whenever possible. Staying hydrated and eating lots of fruit and vegetables will help you keep your skin fresh, firm and supple.

We all know that exposure to the sun can cause cancer. We all know what to do to minimise exposure. But on a beautiful sunny day when you want to go to the beach and get a tan, the whole sunscreen thing seems like a lot of work to prevent a far-away calamity. Look at it another way:  Slip into a long-sleeved shirt, slap on a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, slop on a whole lot of sunscreen and keep putting on more. OK, so if you don’t want to think about preventing melanoma, do it to stay beautiful!

Pin It on Pinterest