Sun smart

The sun produces UV (ultraviolet) radiation, which can affect our health. There is a spectrum of wavelengths that come from the sun that we cannot feel but that can damage our skin and other parts of our body. Too much exposure to UV radiation can cause skin cancer. It is important to protect yourself from overexposure at any age, but it is increasingly important as you get older because your risk of developing skin cancer increases.

Vitamin D

The sun can provide us with the essential nutrient vitamin D, which helps to control calcium levels in your body as well as keep your bones, muscles, and teeth healthy. You can get vitamin D from the sun, but you have to be careful about how much exposure you get.

You can increase your vitamin D levels with regular and small exposure to the sun. Spending small amounts of time in the sun is safer and more useful than an extended time in the sun, which can be dangerous. It is recommended that, from September to April, you take a daily walk or complete other outdoor physical activity in the early morning or late evening. From May to August, it is recommended that you take a walk or complete other outdoor physical activity around midday with your face, arms, and hands exposed.

Some foods may increase your vitamin D levels by a small amount. These foods include oily fish, dairy products, eggs, liver, some margarines, and some dairy substitutes. 

Sun protection

It is recommended that you follow the five S’s for sun protection. These are:

Slip on a long-sleeved shirt with a collar and pants, a skirt, or a lavalava to cover exposed parts of your body. You can get clothing that use UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) fabrics which offer more protection.

Slop on sunscreen. You should find sunscreen that is water resistant, broad spectrum, and has an SPF of at least 30. You should apply about nine teaspoons all over your body. Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before going outside and reapplied every two hours. It is recommended that you use a two-coat method, check the use-by date, and store your sunscreen below 30 degrees.

Slap on a hat. A protective hat should have a broad brim at least 7.5cm all the way around. Caps do not offer protection to the neck, ears, or side of the face.

Seek shade. If possible, do activities in the shade. Avoid extended periods in the sun between 10am and 4pm during daylight savings time. You can use an umbrella or portable shade to offer more shade when outdoors.

Slide on sunglasses. Make sure your sunglasses are closely fitting, including the sides of the frames. Sunglasses should meet UV protection standards.

For more information on being sun safe, check Melanoma New Zealand.

When to protect yourself

It is recommended that you protect yourself against UV radiation when the UVI (ultraviolet index) is over three. You can view a local UVI at NIWA. Remember that you can still get burnt on a cloudy or cold day. During daylight savings time, you should always protect yourself from 10am to 4pm. If possible, you can make sunscreen a part of your morning routine.

Some environments require sun protection regardless of the time of year. If you are at a beach, you may be exposed to more UV radiation from reflections off the water or sand. At high altitudes, and especially areas with snow, you may also be exposed to reflections of UV and should follow sun protection guidelines.

If you have a history of skin cancer or sun damage, you should use sun protection all the time to prevent further damage. You should also check any medications you take to see if it affects your skins sensitivity to light. 

Treatment for sunburn

If you get sunburnt, there are some recommendations for treatment:

  • Prevent further exposure by covering up or staying out of direct sunlight until the burn has healed
  • Cool the area with a cold flannel or a cool bath or shower
  • Rehydrate yourself with lots of fluids to replace what has been lost from sun exposure
  • Soothe your skin with after-sun care products such as sprays or aloe vera
  • Moisturise your skin if it is not too painful to boost the moisture content of the skin beneath
  • Use paracetamol or ibuprofen as pain relief
  • Do not pop blisters or pick peeling skin

If your sunburn is severe, you may require medical attention. If you think your burn needs more attention, see your doctor or pharmacist. 

Websites of interest

  • You can read more about skin cancer on our Skin Cancer page
  • The Sun Protection Alert shows you when you need to protect yourself from the sun in your area each day during daylight savings months
  • More information on the effects of UV radiation and being safe in the sun can be found at SunSmart
  • Information on sunburn and treatment can be found at Health Navigator
  • To find out more about using sunscreen, check here

Find your nearest Age Concern