UV confusion: Most Australians don’t know when they need sun protection

It’s the sunburnt country, but an astonishing 92 per cent of Australians do not know they need to start protecting themselves from the sun’s harsh rays when the UV level reaches three or above, new Cancer Council research shows. Despite widespread awareness that ultraviolet radiation causes skin cancer, most Australians didn’t know they must start “slipping on protective clothing, slopping on sunscreen, slapping on a hat, seeking shade and sliding on sunglasses” when the UV level hit 3, which at present occurs about 10.30am. “You should take all five steps at the UV index value of 3 because that’s the level at which skin and eyes can start getting damaged and the little amounts of damage can add up and lead to cancer,” Heather Walker, chair of Cancer Council’s National Skin Cancer Committee, said. UV radiation is a known carcinogen and the sun’s UV rays are thought to account for 95 per cent of melanoma cases in Australia. Nearly 2000 Australians are expected to die from melanoma this year. The long-running National Sun Protection Survey worryingly showed the public’s understanding of UV levels has stagnated, with 93 per cent in 2013-14 not knowing when sun protection was required. The latest survey also showed 24 per cent incorrectly thought they could judge their sunburn risk by the temperature, while 23 per cent mistakenly cited conditions such as cloud cover, wind conditions or humidity. Only 39 per cent correctly said UV rays was the only way to determine their risk of sunburn. While UV rays can be reduced by some types of clouds, it can bounce off others, giving the skin a “double dose”. UV rays can’t be seen or felt so Australians are being encouraged to check the daily UV Index charts published by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) or Bureau of Meteorology (BoM). This month in Sydney, the UV level will pass 3 about 10.30am and fall below it about 4.30pm. “I’ll often be outside after work and be amazed that even though it’s a warm, lovely, sunny afternoon, I don’t need sun protection,” said Ms Walker. “Intuitively it feels wrong, but I know how the science works and you can plan your outdoor activities so that it coincides with when the UV levels are low.” An ARPANSA spokeswoman told Fairfax Media the strength of UV rays had not increased over the past 20 years, but it needed further data and time to confirm this, as there was year to year variation. “The average strength of UV is influenced by cyclical periods of certain weather and environmental factors such as ozone events, bushfires, pollution, storms and cloud cover, aerosols and El Nino and La Nina events,” she said. She said its UV index combined both UVA and UVB, though UVB, which is mostly associated with cancer, is given greater weight. A BoM spokesman said the levels of UV radiation changed throughout the day. “On any day the greatest amount of UV reaches the Earth around midday when the sun is at its highest point,” he said. “When the sun is low in the sky, solar energy must travel a greater distance through the atmosphere and more UV is scattered and absorbed. This applies to UVA and UVB at the Earth’s surface.” Professor David Whiteman, convenor of the Sunscreen Summit, which begins on Monday in Brisbane, said getting Australians to protect their skin was an ongoing challenge. For example, sunscreen could prevent skin cancer, yet many people didn’t know when or how to properly use it. About 85 per cent don’t apply it correctly. “We’re hoping to develop new strategies to educate Australians about sunscreen’s role in sun protection and find new ways to improve public understanding of how to prevent skin cancer,” Professor Whiteman, also head of the Cancer Control group at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, said. When UV levels are 3 or above, Cancer Council recommends:

  • Slip on protective clothing
  • Slop on SPF30 or higher, broad spectrum, water resistant sunscreen
  • Slap on a broadbrim hat
  • Seek shade
  • Slide on sunglasses
  • Australians can also use the SunSmart app to see sun protection times each day

The Age, 18 March 2018 ; http://www.theage.com.au

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