Skip links and keyboard navigation

Five things every Queenslander should know about sun safety beyond slip, slop, slap, seek, and slide

Friday 27 October 2017

Image of Queensland beach.
Queensland's UV levels are high enough that they're dangerous to your skin year around

Did you know that Queensland's UV levels are high enough that they're dangerous to your skin year around? Or that not every t-shirt is giving you the same level of protection from the sun? Queenslanders hear a lot about sun safety every year, courtesy of living in the Sunshine State, but the advice to slip, slop, slap, seek, and slide is tailored to an Australia-wide audience.

It's great advice - and given that our melanoma rates are some of the highest in the world, we could all practice it a little more often - but some days it pays to know a little more about what's going on underneath the slogan. That's why we're taking a look at five things every Queenslander should know about sun safety beyond the five ways to be sun safe.

1. Our daily UV Index rarely drops below 3 and this is a big deal

The daily UV index is a forecast by the Bureau of Meteorology that measures the danger and intensity of solar UV radiation. Each point on the scale is the equivalent of 25 milliWatts/square meter of UV radiation, but what you really need to know is what those points mean.

When the UV Index sits at a 1 or 2, the UV levels aren't a huge threat to your skin unless you're out in the sun for a prolonged period. At a 3 or above, there's enough UV about to damage the skin and lead to skin cancer, which means it's time to start being sun safe.  Anything above 11 is extreme, and represents some pretty significant danger to your skin.

In Queensland our UV index sits above 3 all year around, powering up to the extremes of 14 or 15 during summer. This makes summer a time when playing it sun safe is critical, but there's always some level of threat from UV radiation in Queensland, regardless of the season - you want to slip, slop, slap, seek, and slide year round.

2. Australia takes sunscreen very, very seriously

You've probably never had much reason to think about the government guidelines that surround sunscreen, but Australia actually has very specific standards that need to be met before something is permitted to have the word 'sunscreen' on the label. There are strict, additional standards that need to be met before terms like 'SPF rating,' 'water resistance,' and 'broad spectrum protection' can be used as well.

Sunscreen in Australia is approved and tested by the Therapeutic Goods Administration - the same body responsible for maintaining the standards of pharmaceuticals, therapeutic devices, surgical equipment and health supplements to make sure they're safe. If you're wondering why the TGA takes such an interest in sunscreen, they lay it all out on their website:

"Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and sunscreens are an important component of a sun protection regime. Many Australians use sunscreen every day of their lives, sometimes over large areas of their body surface. It is important that sunscreens used in Australia are safe and effective and of good quality. For this reason, the TGA regulates some sunscreens as therapeutic goods in Australia."

TGA approval means that every product sold as sunscreen must meet the minimum guidelines, and regulated terms cannot be used unless additional requirements are met. Regardless of brand, price, or advertising claims, all products using words like sunscreen, water resistance, broad spectrum protection, and an SPF rating will do the job listed on the label.

Meanwhile, products that avoid terms like sunscreen, don't list specific SPF protection ratings or ingredients, and use terms such as water proof (which isn't permitted under TGA guidelines) haven't been tested and cleared by the TGA, and aren't required to back up their marketing claims.

See also: TGA's Sunscreen: Information for consumers

3. You really want broad-spectrum protection from your sunscreen

There are two different types of UV radiation that pose a threat to your skin. UVA radiation penetrates beneath the skin, affecting the living cells beneath the surface. It contributes to skin cancer, but also causes damage like wrinkles, blotchiness, and sagging. UVB radiation affects the top layer of skin and it's the main cause of skin cancer and skin damage.

Sunscreen providing broad-spectrum protection will filter out both types of radiation, providing your skin with more comprehensive protection.

See also: The Sunsmart Sunscreen info sheet

4. Find the right sunscreen that suits your skin and lifestyle

There are two different types of sunscreen, and they protect you from UV rays in different ways. The first type creates a physical barrier which blocks and reflects UV light the same way a white wall reflects lights - and it includes things like zinc cream where the sunscreen is noticeable. The second type of sunscreen provides a chemical barrier that absorbs and filters ultraviolet radiation, and it tends to be a lot less visible to the naked eye.

Which one should you use? Whichever best fits your situation. Chemical barriers tend to be more common in children's sunscreens, and may be less irritating if you have sensitive skin, but every sunscreen will have its own chemical make-up. The most important thing is finding a sunscreen that suits you, that you'll actually use, and focusing on the important things: broad-spectrum, SPF 30 or higher protection.

5. Not all clothes are created equal when it comes to sun protection

'Slip on a shirt' has been part of the sun safety mantra in Australia for the better part of thirty years now, but not all shirts offer the same protection when it comes to UV rays. It's one of the reasons, in recent years, the advice has evolved into 'slip on clothing' instead.

The best sun protection comes from covering up as much skin as possible, but darker clothing with a tighter fabric structure will generally offer better protection than lightly-woven fabrics, stretched-out clothing, or light, pastel shades. Another thing worth knowing: fabric provides less sun protection when it's wet, so if you're going swimming in an old t-shirt remember to take another shirt to change into when you're done.

If you want to be sure of the level of protection offered by your outfit, look for a tag with a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating. Like the UV protection rating on sunscreen, UPF standards for fabric ratings are established by the Australian and New Zealand Standard for Sun Protective Clothing and are based on how much UV radiation will pass through the unstretched, dry material. Fabrics rated above UPF15 provide good protection, but UPF50+ is recommended.

See also: SunSmart on What to look for in protective clothing

Last updated: 30 October 2017