A Sunny Public Health Announcement

Every year, hundreds of Australians flock to our beaches during the summer. Image credit Nikita Vasilyev, via Flickr.

It’s almost time to shed those winter gains in preparation for the summer just around the corner. But how much do you care about your exposure to sunlight, what it might be doing to your body and how to better protect yourself? This is a get-to-know guide on what you could be expecting during those hot, summer, beach days.

Beyond the rainbow

The sun shoots out energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation, what we perceive as sunlight when it reaches Earth. Our atmosphere protects us from the more dangerous light such as x-rays and ultraviolet, but it doesn’t do a perfect job. Ultraviolet radiation is invisible to the naked eye, we don’t have the appropriate receptors in our eyes to detect them. It’s beyond visible light and therefore has higher frequency, shorter wavelengths in comparison. This translates to higher energy and a greater potential to cause chemical reactions, which can be a good and a bad thing. All UVR is classified as carcinogenic or cancer causing, because of this property.

We split solar UVR into three categories: UVA, UVB and UVC, ranging from longest to shortest wavelengths. UVC is completely absorbed by the atmosphere and only UVA and UVB reaches the surface. UVA is the closest to visible light and is the least energetic. The more energetic UVB is mostly absorbed by the atmosphere but roughly 10% gets through.

UV-Benefits and UV-Cancerous

Sunlight is great for you, it’s warm and delightful but it also has great physiological benefits too. Vitamin D is essential to all life and is entirely produced by our skin cells when exposed to sunlight, specifically UVB radiation. Deficiency in vitamin D can cause diseases related to bone health such as rickets and osteoporosis.

However, the World Health Organization recommends that only, “5 to 15 minutes of casual sun exposure of hands, face and arms two to three times a week during the summer months is sufficient to keep your vitamin D levels high“.

We’re usually exposed to sunlight longer than necessary during summer. We know through sunburns that UVR has enough energy to damage the surface of our skin. However, both UVA and UVB are also classified as carcinogenic, meaning that they can cause reactions in our bodies that lead to cancers. UVB can directly break covalent bonds in our DNA, producing cancer cells that can later develop into tumours or melanoma, the fourth most common cancer in Australia. Although UVA has less energy, it can still damage DNA indirectly by generating reactive species in our cells.

If that’s not enough to scare you, UVR also damages the collagen fibres and degrades vitamin A, which help keep the youthful appearance. Excessive sun exposure has been linked to accelerated aging of the skin. More sun = more wrinkles and sag!

Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before exposure and reapply every 2-4 hours. Image credit JoeBlubaugh, via Flickr.

Sunscreen and protection

Apply sunscreen and reapply! You’re probably annoyed by how much this is thrown around, but sunscreen really is the most effective way of protecting yourself in the sun. We’ve come a long way in the sunscreen industry and there are now hundreds of different options available. Look for sunscreen that is SPF30+ and broad-spectrum. SPF30+ offers the recommended amount of protection from UVB radiation, and broad-spectrum includes UVA protection, which is not rated. If you look at the ingredients, most sunscreens use chemical filters, mineral filters or a mix. Shop around and choose the one that is most comfortable for you. Chemical filters are generally lighter and less greasy but offer less protection than mineral filters.

More tips and tricks

  • Get your mate to help you apply sunscreen – you must apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of your skin, another set of hands can really come in handy!
  • Avoid going out during peak solar hours – the sun is at its highest and sunlight at its strongest from 10 pm – 2 pm.
  • Check the UV index – you can find this information at your local meteorologist; however it’s still recommended to protect yourself every day of the week.
  • Try to wear light layers of clothing and a hat to limit your skin’s exposure. If not, wear sunscreen on all exposed areas of skin.
  • Wear sunglasses – the receptors at the back of your eye are prone to damage caused by sunlight. Protect your vision by wearing sunglasses that filter out UVR.
  • Don’t go tanning – it’s terrible for your health and only works to accelerate the aging of your skin. Use tanning products instead.

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