Read the information below to find out about balancing the harms and benefits of sun exposure before obtaining advice that is tailored to your skin type and where you live. Or click here to go directly to your advice.

How to balance the harms and benefits of sun exposure

The sun has risks and benefits for health. Being in the sun can damage your skin and eyes, but it also allows your body to make vitamin D and has other benefits.

Australia is the skin cancer capital of the world

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world. About 16,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma every year, and around 1,400 people die from it. Over 500,000 people are treated for other types of skin cancer every year, and it is estimated that about $2.1 billion dollars/year is spent managing skin cancer. The sun also causes some types of cataracts.

The best way to avoid skin cancers and cataracts is to protect the skin and eyes from the sun, particularly when the ultraviolet (UV) index is 3 or higher.

IF YOU WORK OUTDOORS YOU SHOULD ALWAYS PROTECT YOUR SKIN REGARDLESS OF THE UV INDEX.

 

There are three main types of skin cancer: melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and basal cell carcinoma (BCC). SCC and BCC are sometimes grouped together and called keratinocyte cancers. You may also see them called nonmelanoma cancers.

Skin cancers can arise anywhere on the body, including on parts of the body that rarely see the sun or under the fingernails or toenails. They are not always brown. They can be pink, scaly, pearly, itchy.

If you notice anything on your skin that is new or changing you should visit your doctor.

The UV Index is an indicator of the intensity of sunburning UV radiation at Earth’s surface. When the UV Index is high, it takes a shorter time to damage cells and cause sunburn compared to when it is low. Your cells can be damaged even when you are not burnt. 

The UV Index varies according to where you live, the time of year, and the time of day.

Sun protection is recommended when the UV index is 3 or more. However, extra care is needed when the UV index is in the high or extreme range (5 or more) – ideally you should plan outdoor activities for outside these times. That means that for most of the year, or all year in some parts of Australia, you should try to avoid being outdoors in the middle of the day.

The temperature and cloud cover are not reliable indicators of the UV Index. Even on cool and cloudy days the UV Index can be 3 or more. You can use the Sunsmart app or the BOM Weather app to find out the UV Index where you live.

Importantly, you can also damage your skin when the UV Index is less than 3. The amount of UV radiation you receive depends on the UV Index AND how long you spend outdoors. So a long time outdoors when the UV Index is less than 3 could still cause harm. If you are an outdoor worker you should ALWAYS protect your skin.

Exposing skin to the sun leads to the production of vitamin D

Vitamin D is produced in the skin when it is exposed to UV-B rays (which are also most likely to cause damage that may lead to skin cancer). The intensity of UV-B varies by location, time of year, and time of day, so these factors influence how quickly vitamin D is produced in the skin. The time needed for vitamin D also depends on the amount of skin that is not covered by clothing when outdoors and skin colour. People with fair skin need less time in the sun to maintain healthy vitamin D levels compared to those with deeply pigmented skin.

Importantly, irrespective of where you live or season, vitamin D is not made in the early morning (before 7am) or late afternoon (after 5pm) because there is not usually enough UV-B at those times of day.

Vitamin D is vital for bone health. There is evidence that it also improves immune function and it may play a role in other diseases such as cancer and heart disease. It is important to avoid being vitamin D deficient.

The sun has other benefits

Sun exposure improves sleep and mood. It might also have other benefits, such as reducing blood pressure or improving immune function, although this is not yet proven.

How does vitamin D get made?

There is a chemical in our skin (called 7-dehydrocholesterol). When it is exposed to UV-B radiation it gets converted to pre-vitamin D, which then becomes vitamin D. This gets activated in the liver, the kidneys, and other cells to become the active form of vitamin D.

When the UV Index is high it only takes a very short time to make vitamin D. 

Why not just avoid the sun and take a vitamin D supplement?

For some people, particularly those at high risk of skin cancer, this may be the best approach. But there is emerging evidence that the same parts of sunlight that produce vitamin D can have other benefits, particularly for the immune system. Spending enough time outdoors to have healthy vitamin D might also have other health benefits.

Mood and sleep

The parts of sunlight that influence mood and sleep are different from those that make vitamin D. An early morning walk is an ideal time to get these benefits. You won’t make much vitamin D (if any) but the sun will also have minimal damage at these times (unless you are outdoors for a long time).

You should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30+. It is important that it is applied frequently (every 2 hours if you are outdoors) and that you use enough to cover all exposed skin well. For most people (other than those with dark brown or black skin), it is a good idea to make it part of your usual morning routine.

You should check that the sunscreen you use has an AUST L number. The AUST L number is usually found on the front of the bottle or tube and indicates that it is registered with the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

You should not rely on sunscreen in make-up or moisturiser.

Balancing the harms and benefits of sun exposure is challenging

The harms and benefits of sun exposure are not the same for all people. The advice given here groups people into one of three groups according to their risk of skin cancer.

Importantly, these are broad groups. Within each group individual people’s risk of skin cancer and vitamin D deficiency can differ; you should discuss your personal situation with your doctor.

Group 1: Highest Risk Of Harm From Sun Exposure

Very pale skin that burns badly and does not tan;
OR
Darker white or light brown skin that can develop a tan AND at least one of:

  1. Lot of moles or large / unusual moles
  2. A past history of skin cancer treatment
  3. A family history of melanoma
  4. Have had an organ transplant
  5. Currently taking medication that makes the skin more sensitive to the sun
  6. Have a medical condition such as albinism, xeroderma pigmentosum, or Gorlin’s syndrome

 

Group 2: Intermediate Risk of Skin Cancer

c.  Darker white or light brown skin that can develop a tan AND none of the risk factors shown for Group 1

 

 

Group 3: Low Risk of Skin Cancer

d. People with dark brown or black skin are at low risk of developing skin cancers that are caused by the sun

 

 

GET SPECIFIC ADVICE FOR YOUR RISK CATEGORY AND WHERE YOU LIVE

Click on the link below to complete the questionnaire and obtain advice about balancing the harms and benefits of sun exposure according to your risk group and where you live. Don’t forget that if you go to somewhere else in Australia or the world, the sun’s intensity might be different.

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READ THE FULL POSITION SATEMENT

The Australian Skin and Skin Cancer Research Centre (ASSC), position statement on balancing the harms and benefits of sun exposure.