Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a type of radiation that is produced by the sun and some artificial sources, such as solariums. The sun’s UV radiation is the major cause of sunburn, premature ageing, eye damage and skin damage leading to skin cancer. However, it is also the best natural source of vitamin D.
In Victoria, it’s important to take a balanced approach to UV exposure to minimise the risk of skin cancer and get some exposure for vitamin D levels.
The UV Index
The World Health Organization's Global Solar UV Index measures levels of UV radiation on a scale from 0 (Low) to 11+ (Extreme). SunSmart recommends the use of sun protection whenever the UV levels are 3 (Moderate) or higher.
There is a huge variation in UV levels across Australia and UV levels can vary across the day. The UV level is affected by a number of factors including the time of day, time of year, cloud cover, altitude, proximity to the equator, scattering and reflection.
UV cannot be seen or felt. It is not like the sun’s light which we see, or the sun’s warmth (infrared radiation) which we feel. Because we can’t sense UV radiation, we won’t know that it has damaged our skin until it is already too late.
Sun protection times
The sun protection times can tell you whenever UV levels are forecast to be 3 or higher. This makes it easier to know when you do and don’t need sun protection. These times are forecast each day by the Bureau of Meteorology.
You can find the sun protection times for your location on the free SunSmart app, on the SunSmart widget or at the Bureau of Meteorology website.
SunSmart recommends using a combination of the five sun protection measures during the daily sun protection times: Slip on clothing, Slop on SPF30 or higher sunscreen, Slap on a hat, Seek shade and Slide on sunnies.
Health effects of too much UV radiation
Overexposure to UV radiation causes skin and eye damage, sunburn, tanning and ultimately can result in skin cancer.
Find out more about skin cancer
Sunburn at any age, whether serious or mild, can cause permanent and irreversible skin damage that can lay the groundwork for skin cancer later in life. Your lifetime tally of UV radiation exposure, together with the number of severe sunburns, increases your risk of skin cancer.
In Victoria's summer months, the signs of sunburn can start to appear in less than 11 minutes and can take days or weeks to heal depending on the severity. Mild sunburn can be treated at home, but severe and blistered burns require prompt medical attention.
The long-term effects of repeated bouts of sunburn include premature wrinkling and increased risk of skin cancer. Once skin damage occurs, it is impossible to reverse. This is why prevention is much better than cure.
Sunburn can be grouped by seriousness:
- first-degree sunburn: mild sunburn that reddens and inflames the skin
- second-degree sunburn: more serious reddening of the skin and water blisters
- third-degree sunburn: requires medical attention; you should see your doctor if you experience blistering, headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness or severe pain.
There is no cure for sunburn except time and patience. Treatment aims to help manage the symptoms while the body heals. Suggestions include:
- Drink plenty of water because you're probably dehydrated as well as sunburnt.
- Gently apply cool or cold compresses. Alternatively, bathe the area in cool water.
- Avoid using soap as this may irritate your skin.
- Do not apply butter to sunburnt skin.
- Talk to your local pharmacist about products that help soothe sunburn. Choose spray-on solutions rather than creams you apply by hand.
- Don't pop blisters. Consider covering itchy blisters with a wound dressing to reduce the risk of infection.
- Pain permitting, moisturise the skin. This won't stop the burnt skin from peeling off, but it will help boost the moisture content of the skin beneath.
- Take over-the-counter painkillers, if necessary.
- Keep out of the sun until every last sign of sunburn has gone.
- Resist the temptation and don't pick at the skin. Allow the dead skin sheets to detach on their own.
- Apply antiseptic cream to the newly revealed skin to reduce the risk of infection.
- You should see your doctor or seek treatment from your nearest hospital emergency department if you experience symptoms including:
- severe sunburn with extensive blistering and pain
- sunburn over a large area
- nausea and vomiting
- dizziness or altered states of consciousness.
Sunburn prevention is best. Always check the sun protection times on the free SunSmart app and use a combination of sun protection measures when required.
UV exposure can cause photoconjunctivitis, which is also known as snow blindness or welders flash, photokeratitis, macular degeneration, cataracts, pterygiums and skin cancer of the conjunctiva and skin surrounding the eye.
UV radiation is responsible for up to 80% of fine lines and wrinkles. It also causes skin sagging, blotchiness and roughness.
Photosensitivity is an abnormally high sensitivity of the skin or eyes to UV radiation exposure. The skin can burn more easily increasing your risk of skin cancer.
Photosensitivity is caused by ingesting, inhaling or coming into skin contact with photosensitisers – substances that cause photosensitivity. Photosensitisers include industrial chemicals, drugs, plants and some essential oils and fragrances. Some medications can cause photosensitivity. Check with your doctor or pharmacist, as alternate medication may be available.
Information on substances which cause photosensitivity can be found in the Guidance note for the protection of workers from ultraviolet radiation in sunlight from Safe Work Australia.