It’s only mid-September, yet today, just two weeks into spring, my children are swimming to get some relief from the heat. That’s the red-hot reality of the Australian environment. Each year, summers are seemingly becoming hotter and lasting longer. We’re not here today to argue climate change, we just want to ensure our future leaders are well protected, in their childhood, from the sun’s danger… and in a focused way. Considerably more than just the slip of a shirt, the slop of sunscreen or the slap of a hat.
Sunburn in a nutshell
In the past, sun exposure was thought to be a health benefit of outdoor activities. This was an intuitive belief, born from the fact that the sun feels great on our skin.
Studies have since unveiled the many unhealthy effects of sun exposure, ranging from early ageing to skin cancer. Although sunburn can heal, sometimes even resulting in a beautiful olive tan, cell damage adds up year after year. After around 20 years or more, the built-up damage appears as wrinkles, age spots, and even skin cancer.
We have this knowledge, so we should put it to the best use possible, ensuring we do everything we can to educate and protect our little ones. Setting a good example ourselves is a great place to start. Our children generally look up to us and will accept that wearing a hat outside is how life goes, if mummy, daddy or grandma are wearing their hat outside too.
The importance of sun protection in Australia
Protecting oneself from the Australian sun is particularly important. Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with two in three Australians developing some form of skin cancer before age 70.
There are multiple reasons for these statistics, however, it is mainly due to Australia’s genetics. Most Australians have the wrong type of skin for our scorching climate. Through migration, the country has been populated by many people with fair skin.
People with European ancestors come from colder climates where sun damage is not as much of an issue. They therefore never developed the same protective pigmentation. This leaves these Australians’ skin cells especially vulnerable to the sun’s damaging rays.
Protecting skin from the sun
Sun protection tactics come in three “S’s”. These are –
- Sun Avoidance
- Sun-protective Clothing
Staying completely out of the sun is an obvious way to protect your skin from sun exposure, however, this is not realistic and prevents one from realising the sun’s important health benefits (hello vitamin D! We love healthy bones, teeth and muscles!) Ultimately, you should look to limit direct sun exposure during peak sun hours – primarily between 10am and 4pm.
You could also provide some cover in the outdoor areas your children love, such as a sandpit or the shallow end of a swimming pool. If you do cover an area, consider how much UV is being filtered. Some plastics do not filter UV, while loosely woven textile fabrics only filter a percentage of the sun’s harmful rays.
This involves covering exposed skin with protective clothing, such as hats, lightweight long sleeve shirts, and long pants. Look for UV protective clothing – many materials now offer an SPF factor – when possible and remember that tightly woven fabrics provide more protection than loose ones.
This tactic should be used in combination with sunscreen, not instead of it.
It’s simple and we all know the drill. When you are in the sun, wear sunscreen. Reapply, reapply, reapply. Especially when swimming.
Assume, through the warmer months absolutely, but ideally year-round, that even if you’re not in direct sunlight you’ll still be vulnerable to sun damage. It’s sneaky, that sun. Even a moisturiser with SPF in it (ideally look for one with SPF 50+) is worth applying daily. We’re an outdoor nation. Even in the peak of winter, most of our country is not harshly cold. We’re usually rugging-up and continuing our outdoor activities – whether this is outdoor playtime, winter sporting activities, hikes or family strolls. Outdoor time is year-round, therefore sun protection should be too.
How should I apply sunscreen?
Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before exposure to UV in order to create the intended protective barrier. It should be applied liberally and evenly to clean and dry skin. Sunscreen should be reapplied at least every two hours, irrespective of water-resistance. Swimming, sport, sweating and towel drying can reduce effectiveness, so sunscreen should always be reapplied after these activities.
It’s not so much about choosing the right sunscreen. In actual fact, sunscreen is strictly regulated in Australia to ensure quality no matter the brand. Furthermore, even SPF 50+ wears off. Simply put, it’s more about application rather than what you buy. Purchase whatever you are most likely to use, and get something waterproof if you plan on swimming.
Regular skin checks are highly recommended in Australia – whether you live on the coast, in the bush or the outback. As adults we should be getting our skin checked annually – in the very least. More often if you have particularly sun-sensitive skin, with freckles or moles. Your GP is a great place to enquire about this, unless you have a local skin clinic dedicated to the task. Skin clinics offering skin checks are the experts and can advise whether you’re on the right track with your child too. When it comes to the subject matter of UV rays, sun protection and skin cancer in Australia… it’s always better to be safe than sorry!
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Written by Byron Devlin, with an introduction by Brooke James.