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10 myths about sun protection:

FALSE You can get sun damage on windy, cloudy and cool days. Sun damage is caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, not temperature. A cool or overcast day in summer can have similar UV levels to a warm, sunny day. If it’s windy and you get a red face, it’s likely to be sunburn. There’s no such thing as ‘windburn’.

Sun damage is also possible on cloudy days, as UV radiation can penetrate some clouds, and may even be more intense due to reflection off the clouds.

Check the daily sun protection times, available online (cancer.org.au or bom.gov.au/uv), in the weather section of newspapers, or on the free SunSmart app. The sun protection times show when the UV is forecast to be 3 or above.

FALSE Fake tanning lotion does not improve your body’s ability to protect itself from the sun, so you will still need sun protection. Some fake tans have an SPF rating but this should not be relied on for continued protection.

FALSE Unless cosmetics are labelled with an SPF 30 or higher rating, you should wear additional sunscreen under your makeup if you’re going to be in the sun for an extended period. For longer periods of time in the sun, use a separate sunscreen and reapply it every two hours—not just once in the morning. Be aware that most cosmetic products offer either no protection or protection that is much lower than the recommended SPF 30.

FALSE People with olive skin can get skin cancer too. Regardless of skin type, exposure to UV radiation from the sun and other artificial sources, such as solariums, can cause skin to be permanently damaged. People with skin types that are less likely to burn can still receive enough UV exposure to risk developing skin cancer. Care still needs to be taken in the sun.

FALSE No sunscreen is a suit of armour and sunscreen should never be used to extend the amount of time you spend in the sun.

Though it may sound like there is a big difference, SPF 50 only offers marginally better protection from UVB radiation, which causes sunburn and adds to skin cancer risk. SPF 30 sunscreens filter about 96.7 per cent of UV radiation, SPF 50 sunscreens filter 98 per cent of UV.

Cancer Council recommends applying a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher before heading outside, every two hours, after swimming, sweating, or towel drying.

FALSE Australians shouldn’t expose themselves to potentially harmful UV in order to get more vitamin D. Research suggests that prolonged sun exposure does not cause vitamin D levels to continue to increase further but does increase the risk of skin cancer. When UV levels are 3 or above, most Australians get enough vitamin D with just a few minutes of sun exposure while completing everyday tasks—like walking to the car or shops. During peak UV times, it’s important to reduce your risk of skin cancer by protecting your skin.

However, sun protection isn’t generally recommended when UV levels are below 3. If you live in those parts of Australia where UV levels are low in winter, you can help maintain vitamin D levels by spending time outdoors in the middle of the day and doing some physical activity. People who may be at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency include people with naturally very dark skin, people with conditions or medications that impact vitamin D absorption, those who cover their skin for religious or cultural reasons and those with little or no sun exposure. If you believe you are at risk of vitamin D deficiency, speak to your doctor.

FALSE Skin cancer treatment can be much more serious than simply having a lesion ‘burnt off’. It can include surgery, chemotherapy and can result in permanent scarring. Skin cancer can also spread to other parts of your body. Each year, more than 2,000 Australians die of skin cancer.

Be alert for any new spots or changes to existing spots and consult your GP immediately if you notice anything new or changing. And remember, prevention is always better than cure.

FALSE Excessive exposure to the sun does not just happen when deliberately seeking a tan. In a high-UV environment like Australia, we can be exposed to dangerous levels of UV radiation during all sorts of daily activities, such as working outdoors, gardening, walking the dog or having a picnic. This sun exposure adds up over time, increasing the risk of skin cancer.

FALSE There’s no such thing as a safe tan. If skin darkens, it is a sign of skin cells in trauma, even if there is no redness or peeling. Skin darkens as a way of trying to protect itself because the UV rays are damaging living cells. If you tan easily, you are still at risk of skin cancer and need to use sun protection.

FALSE You can get burnt through a car window. Untinted glass commonly used in car side windows reduces, but does not completely block, transmission of UV radiation. This means you can still get burnt if you spend a long time in the car next to an untinted side window when the UV is high. More commonly, people are burnt in cars with the windows down, where they can be exposed to high levels of UV radiation.

UV radiation from the sun causes skin cancer, but it is also the best natural source of vitamin D, which is needed to develop and maintain strong and healthy bones.

In Australia we need to balance the risk of skin cancer from too much sun exposure with maintaining vitamin D levels.

What is vitamin D and why is it important?

Vitamin D forms in the skin when it is exposed to UVB radiation from sunlight. Some foods, such as oily fish and eggs also contain small amounts of vitamin D, while margarine and some types of milk have added vitamin D. However, food only makes a small contribution to the body’s overall vitamin D levels and it is difficult to get enough from diet alone.

We need vitamin D to maintain good health, in particular to keep bones and muscles strong and healthy.

How much sun do we need for vitamin D?

When the skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun, vitamin D is formed through a series of processes that start in the skin.

The amount of sunlight you need for vitamin D depends on several factors, including age, the UV level, your skin type and your lifestyle. UV levels vary across Australia, so the time you need to spend in the sun will be determined by your location, the season, the time of day, cloud coverage and the environment.

The body can only absorb a limited amount of vitamin D at a time. Extended periods of time in the sun does not increase your vitamin D levels, but they do increase your skin cancer risk.

When the UV Index is 3 or above (August–May in South Australia), incidental sun exposure—such as walking from the office to get lunch or hanging out the washing—is enough for most people to produce the required vitamin D levels, even when wearing sun protection.

In June and July, when the UV Index typically falls below 3 in southern states, we recommend spending time outdoors in the middle of the day with some skin uncovered on most days of the week to support vitamin D production. Being physically active (e.g. gardening or going for a brisk walk) also helps boost vitamin D levels.

If I protect myself from the sun, will I still get enough vitamin D?

Sensible sun protection does not put people at risk of vitamin D deficiency. When sunscreen is tested in lab conditions it is shown to block vitamin D production, however regular use in real life has been shown to have little effect on vitamin D levels. This is probably because sunscreen doesn’t block 100 per cent of UV radiation so your skin is still exposed to small amounts of UV, even when sunscreen is applied liberally. People who use more sunscreen also spend more time in the sun, so naturally they will have higher vitamin D levels.

When do I need sun protection?

Most Australians need sun protection when the UV Index is 3 or above. The UV Index is an international standard measurement of the strength of UV radiation from the sun at a particular place on a particular day. UV levels are low in the early morning as the sun comes up, gradually increasing to a peak around the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest, and then decreasing slowly as the sun gets lower in the sky.

In northern parts of Australia (like Brisbane and Darwin), UV levels are above 3 all year round and reach extreme levels of 14+ in summer, so sun protection is needed daily.

In southern parts of the country, there are times of the year when sun protection is not necessary. For example, in Adelaide, the average daily UV levels remain below 3 in June and July, so sun protection is not required unless you are outside for extended periods or near highly reflective surfaces like water.

You can refer to the SunSmart appt to find out the sun protection times for your location.

Who is at risk of vitamin D deficiency?

There are groups within the population that are at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency including:

  • people with naturally very dark skin—the melanin in dark skin affects UV penetration so you need more UV exposure to make vitamin D
  • people with little or no sun exposure (e.g. older adults who are in residential care or housebound; those who wear concealing clothing for religious or cultural purposes; those who deliberately avoid sun exposure for cosmetic or health reasons; those who are hospitalised for a long time; those with a disability or chronic disease; and night-shift and indoor workers, such as factory workers who have limited incidental UV exposure throughout the day)
  • breast fed babies who fall into the risk categories above or have mothers with low vitamin D—breast milk contains little vitamin D and infants depend on maternal stores initially. (Formula milk is fortified with vitamin D)
  • people with conditions (obesity, end stage liver disease, renal disease and fat malabsorption syndromes such as cystic fibrosis, coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel disease) or medications affecting vitamin D metabolism

If you’re at risk of vitamin D deficiency, consult your GP. Vitamin D levels can be checked with a blood test, and your GP can advise on options, such as supplementation, depending on your individual circumstances.

1 Gies P, Roy C, Javorniczky J, Henderson S, Lemus-Deschamps L, Driscoll C. Global Solar UV Index: Australian Measurements, Forecasts and Comparison with the UK. Photochemistry and Photobiology, 2004; 79(1): 32-39.
2 Hobart and Canberra data is supplied from personal communication from ARPANSA August 2011

For more information
 http://wiki.cancer.org.au/policy/Position_statement_-_Risks_and_benefits_of_sun_exposure ​​​​​​​
➔ Cancer Council cancer.org.au/VitD
➔ Cancer Council 13 11 20 (cost of a local call anywhere in Australia)
Australasian College of Dermatologists
➔ Osteoporosis Australia
Australian and New Zealand Bone and Mineral Society 
Bureau of Meteorology
Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency

This information has been jointly developed by:

This website page was last reviewed and updated March 2019.


This webpage was last reviewed and updated in January 2020.