How to stay safe in the sun this summer
Getting sunburnt increases your risk of getting skin cancer – the most common cancer affecting New Zealanders. Each year, an estimated 90,000 non-melanoma skin cancers and more than 6,000 melanomas (the most serious type of skin cancer) are diagnosed, with around 500 Kiwis dying from the diseases.
Using sunscreen is one part of your defence against the harmful UV rays. Most people told us reducing the risk of skin cancer and preventing sunburn were the most important reasons for applying it. Despite this, there’s confusion about what SPF numbers mean.
Cost-of-living concerns are also having an impact on our sun safety practices. Fifty-seven percent of people in our survey said price was very important when buying sunscreen, with 60% believing sunscreens are too expensive.
You don’t need to splurge on sunscreens to be protected. Here are some easy and affordable ways to protect your whānau this summer.
Understand the UV index
The UV index (UVI) measures the level of radiation from the sun. It takes into account several factors, including the time of day, cloud cover, altitude and closeness to the equator and is helpful to alert you about when the sun’s rays are the most damaging. Yet, 35% of people don’t consider the UVI. An additional 6% don’t understand it.
The higher the UVI number, the greater the risk and the less time it takes to cause skin and eye damage. In summer, New Zealand’s UVI can get up to 12 (but can exceed 13 in the far north). When the UVI is three or higher sun protection is recommended.
It’s also important to consider how long you’re outside. Spending long periods outside, even when the UVI is low and you don’t get sunburnt, can add up and cause skin damage.
UV rays can also be reflected off surfaces such as water, sand and snow so be vigilant when at the snow, the beach and near water.
Understand SPF and broad-spectrum protection
SPF stands for sun protection factor. It’s a measure of protection against mainly UVB rays that cause sunburn. The higher the SPF number, the greater the protection – up to 50+.
An SPF15 sunscreen that’s properly applied is meant to give you 15 times the protection you’d get with unprotected skin, and SPF30 gives you 30 times the protection. That’s the theory, but these times will vary from person to person depending on skin type, activities (such as exercise or swimming) and how well sunscreen is applied.
No sunscreen blocks 100% of UVB rays: SPF15 blocks 93%, SPF30 blocks 97% and SPF50 blocks 98%.
Make sure your sunscreen also offers broad-spectrum protection. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA and UVB radiation. UVA rays are dangerous because there’s no immediate warning sign, such as the sunburn caused by UVB rays.
A handy way to remember the difference between UVA and UVB:
“A” is for ageing – the type of ultraviolet light the sun emits that penetrates deepest through the dermal layer and causes skin ageing, such as wrinkles and spots.
“B” is for burning – it harms the top layer of your skin in a shorter amount of time than UVA rays.
Both types also cause skin cancer.
For more information about sunscreens read our sunscreen FAQs.
Apply plenty of sunscreen
Adults need about 9 teaspoons of sunscreen for a full-body application. That’s about 2 teaspoons for each leg and 1 teaspoon for each arm, your back, your front and your face (which includes your neck and ears).
It’s important to apply sunscreen thickly enough and at least 20 minutes before going outside – it needs to be absorbed into the skin before you’re protected.
Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours when you’re outside.
Only 13% of survey respondents do this, with 46% reapplying “every now and then”. Nine percent never reapply sunscreen. When asked why they don’t reapply, 45% said they forget.
Swimming or mopping up sweat or towelling dry reduces protection – so apply another coat immediately.
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Protect your peepers
Wearing sunglasses is important for protecting your eyes. As well as protecting the delicate skin around the eye from skin cancer, sunnies help reduce the risk of developing other eye conditions such as cataracts, macular degeneration of the retina (a leading cause of blindness in later life) and pterygium (a growth on the surface of the eye).
UV rays can also cause “snow blindness” or photokeratitis. This is sunburn of the cornea, a painful but fortunately temporary condition. It’s particularly a problem when UV is reflected from below (by water, sand, or snow) because this bypasses the protection provided by a cap or hat.
Most people (81%) said price is important when buying sunglasses – luckily, you don’t need to spend top dollar on sunglasses to get quality protection. Last year, we tested 50 pairs of sunglasses ranging in price from $2 to $192. Twenty-one pairs, including six kids’ pairs, failed our test. But we also found cheap sunnies that provide good UV protection.
Tips for buying sunglasses
Check for a standard. Look for sunglasses that comply with AS/NZS 1067:2016 (which is only voluntary in New Zealand).
Bigger is better. Close-fitting, wraparound styles are best because they help cut down the UV rays entering from the side and protect the delicate skin around your eyes.
Check the lens category. Categories range from 0 to 4, with 4 being the darkest. Category 3 provide good UV protection and high glare protection. Lens categories 0 and 1 are fashion spectacles (not sunglasses), so they have limited protection from the sun. Category 4 is ideal for snowboarding or skiing but isn’t recommended for driving as the lens is too dark to see clearly.
Cover up with suitable clothing
Wear clothing that covers as much skin as possible, such as a top with a collar and long sleeves, and long shorts, trousers or skirts. Fabrics with a tighter weave and dark colour give better protection from the sun.
Remember to wear a hat too. Choose one with a wide brim or flaps covering the ears and neck for the best protection. A good hat can also block up to 50% of UV rays from the eyes.
Some sun-protective clothing has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) claim, a measure given to fabrics that tells you how much of the sun’s UV rays are blocked. A UPF of 15 gives minimum protection, UPF30 good protection and UPF50/50+ excellent protection.
In our test of sun protection clothing, some products didn’t meet UPF label claims.
One of the easiest (and affordable) ways to limit your risk is to seek shade.
The best shade is staying indoors, but other options include natural shade (from trees with a big canopy – the denser, the better), built shade (includes shade sails and awnings) and portable shade (includes tents and umbrellas).
Not all shade is created equal; UV radiation can get through lower-quality shade. Generally, the less blue sky you can see while under shade, the greater the protection. UV radiation can also reflect off surfaces such as concrete, sand and water.
Some shade products claim a sun protection rating called ultraviolet effectiveness (UVE). A product claiming 80-90.9% UVE is effective, 91-94.9% is very protective and 95% or higher is most effective.