New study shows Victorians don't understand when to use sun protection

Tuesday 1 September, 2020

Sun protection required from August when the UV Index is 3 and above

New research shows Victorians don’t understand the UV Index and mistakenly believe temperature and sunshine are the best predictors of the need for sun protection. With the UV Index rising from August to levels where skin damage can occur more easily (3 and above), SunSmart is urging Victorians to get UV savvy and know when to avoid the damaging effects of too much exposure.

The use and understanding of UV forecast information was assessed in a qualitative study conducted by Cancer Council Victoria’s Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer (CBRC) and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA). The study examined public understanding of the UV index among users of the free SunSmart app – a tool that provides location specific sun protection times based on forecast UV information.

Results showed that most participants who were new to the SunSmart app had very limited understanding of the UV index with many people simply looking out the window for guidance on whether sun protection was required.

Head of SunSmart, Heather Walker said there was a common misconception that temperature and sunshine could be relied on to predict the need for sun protection.

“Many people will be surprised to learn that on many of those cool August days the UV Index climbed above 3, which is when sun protection is recommended.

“It’s important for people to enjoy some fresh air in their backyards and while exercising during COVID restrictions, but we want to make sure they’re informed and doing it safely,” Ms Walker said.

Dr Rick Tinker, Director of Assessment and Advice for ARPANSA, said the study highlighted the need for better public education around the UV Index and what it means for sun protection habits.

“UV radiation is a type of invisible, high-energy radiation produced by the sun. It cannot be detected by our senses which is what makes it so dangerous. It’s not like the sun’s light or heat which we can see or feel.

“The UV Index is generally not related to temperature as there can be high UV radiation even on cool days. Without knowing the level of UV radiation, as indicated by the UV Index, people may incorrectly use temperature as a guide to their sun protection habits and get caught out,” said Dr Tinker.

When asked about the UV Index, participants new to the SunSmart app were unable to accurately interpret the scale. Concerningly, many viewed the sun protection times linked to the UV Index as unnecessary and overly cautious.

Ms Walker said it was critical for Victorians to understand how the UV Index is linked to the recommended sun protection times in order to avoid the damaging effects of too much UV.

“Knowing when to use sun protection is just as important as knowing how to use it. Sun protection times are issued when the UV Index is 3 or above. Too much UV exposure can cause damage to your skin including the deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma,” Ms Walker said.

In 2018, 3,097 Victorians were diagnosed with melanoma and 291 lost their lives to it. In the same year, Medicare records show there were over 150,000 treatments for squamous and basal cell carcinoma skin cancers in Victoria – that’s more than 17 skin cancer treatments every hour.

“Despite its prevalence, most skin cancers can be avoided by using five forms of sun protection when the UV Index is above 3,” said Ms Walker.

Ms Walker said results of the Cancer Council study were not all negative with the study showing long-term users of the SunSmart app relied on the UV alerts to inform their daily sun protection routines.

“Downloading the free SunSmart app is a positive first step towards becoming more UV savvy and establishing better sun protection habits. We’re encouraging all Victorians to improve their basic understanding of UV – whether that be by using the SunSmart app or checking the BOM website for daily UV forecast information.”

SunSmart recommends that Victorians protect their skin in five ways when the UV Index is above 3:

  • Slip on loose protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
  • Slop on SPF30 or higher, broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen 20 minutes before going outdoors. Reapply every two hours.
  • Slap on a broad-brim, bucket or legionnaires style hat that covers the face, neck and ears.
  • Seek shade wherever possible outside; particularly in the middle of the day when the UV is highest.
  • Slide on close fitting, wrap-around sunglasses that cover as much of the eye area as possible and that meet the Australian Standards.

For more information and tips on protecting your skin visit The free SunSmart app which provides UV alerts and reminders for sunscreen application can be downloaded on the App store and Google Play.

The UV Index

The UV Index was developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Environment Programme, and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

About the research study

Title: Not part of my routine: a qualitative study of use and understanding of UV forecast information and the SunSmart app. Authors: Centre for Behavioural Research (CBRC), MM Research, SunSmart Victoria and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) Published: BMC Public Health, 16 August 2019 Reference: Nicholson, A., Murphy, M., Walker, H., Tinker, R., & Dobbinson, S. (2019). Not part of my routine: a qualitative study of use and understanding of UV forecast information and the SunSmart app. BMC Public Health, 19(1), 1127.

This qualitative study aimed to examine public understanding of the UV Index among Australians who routinely use UV forecast information as well as those who do not. Recent use of the SunSmart app (a popular mobile and tablet app that provides UV forecast information) served as a proxy for use of UV forecast information. Six focus groups were conducted with ‘new users’, who trialled the SunSmart app for the first time in the two weeks preceding the group discussion. In addition, 15 in depth interviews were conducted with ‘existing users’, who routinely used the SunSmart app. Thematic discourse analysis was undertaken to compare views and experiences.

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