What are the risks of getting sunburnt?
This can be broken down into short term and long term risks. Short term there is the obvious pain associated with sunburn, and in severe cases this can cause blistering, or heat stroke. Long term the most dangerous risk is skin cancer, which is due to both number, and severity of sunburns, but also cumulative sun exposure even without burning. The less obvious risk, that people often ignore, is photoaging, or the aging effect that UV exposure has on the skin, for example increased or mottled pigment, and wrinkles. Even those who tan, or have naturally darker skin, are at risk of skin cancer. Bob Marley died from melanoma, at the age of 36, from a spot on his toe.
When are you most at risk of getting sunburnt?
People commonly associate a sunny day with risk of sunburn, but this isn’t the whole story. The closer it is to the summer solstice, or middle of summer, the higher the risk of sunburn, due to the UV levels being higher at those times. The time of day is also important, but the risk of getting burnt during summer is high for most of the day. Cloud cover doesn’t provide much protection, so even on cloudy or overcast days it is important to protect yourself. There are apps, such as the SunSmart app, to let you know what the UV index is at any particular time. When the UV index is 3 or more then you need to protect yourself from the sun.
What about all the chemicals in sunscreen, do we need to worry about those?
There are no published studies to suggest there is any risk to human health from using sunscreen.
There are, however, an immeasurable number of studies to support its use, with reduction of risk of skin cancers, and premature aging. Nanoparticles increase the efficacy of sunscreen, and make it nicer to use as it spreads and blends into the skin more readily. These particles do not enter deeper into the skin, as the protective outer layer prevents them being absorbed. Studies that showed risks from some of the ingredients in sunscreens involved injecting or inhaling large amounts of the ingredient, there’s never been an issue with application on the skin. Studies have shown that use of sunscreen every day, even when you don’t think you are going to be in the sun, can halve the risk of skin cancers, including melanoma.
What about vitamin D, it’s important too isn’t it?
Vitamin D is essential for good health, and in Australia we are generally so good at protecting ourselves from the sun, that low vitamin D levels are actually quite common. It is found in foods such as fish and eggs, and also in some foods such as margarine or milk which are fortified with it. The majority though, comes from UV exposure.
The recommendation is for a few minutes of mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun exposure, to give adequate vitamin D production in the skin, though this is different depending on how dark your skin is. The alternative is to take a supplement, which is very safe and if you have a history of skin cancer then taking a supplement, and protecting yourself from the sun, is the safest option. Getting more sun than the recommended few minutes doesn’t increase your vitamin D levels further, but it does increase your risk of skin cancer.
Is sunscreen enough?
Sunscreen is a key component in sun protection, but it should be used in combination with a broad brimmed hat, sunglasses, and protective clothing. Sunscreen also needs to be used in adequate amounts, and reapplied, to be effective. The SPF advertised on the bottle is only accurate if you follow the recommended application, which is more than most people probably apply. Also, if you are going to be swimming or sweating, you have to make sure your sunscreen is water resistant, and reapply more often.