We all know how important it is to ‘slip, slop, slap and wrap’ when we’re planning to go out in the sun for a prolonged period of time. But what you may not be aware of is ‘incidental sun exposure’ – that is, short periods of sun exposure when you’re walking to work, shopping, doing household chores etc.
Following a Sunscreen Summit held in Australia last year, new guidelines have been released – New Zealanders (and Australians) are now advised to apply sunscreen every day when the UV index is predicted to reach 3 or above1.
Why we need to apply sunscreen more often
New Zealanders and Australians have the highest skin cancer incidence and mortality in the world. Around 7 people a day are diagnosed with melanoma in New Zealand (approximately 500 New Zealanders die from skin cancer every year) and over 70% of those are from melanoma2.
Australia and New Zealand lead the world in efforts to control skin cancers. Sunscreen application has long been a key part of skin cancer prevention campaigns, as well as use of clothing, hats, sunglasses and shade, and minimising outdoor exposure during peak UV hours. However, until now, these policies didn’t consider the hazards of incidental (everyday) sun exposure during activities such as travelling to and from work, doing household chores or shopping.
A policy group was formed following the Sunscreen Summit to study the risks and benefits of sunscreen application. They concluded that increased use of sunscreen as part of the daily routine to reduce incidental sun exposure is likely to lead to decreased incidence of skin cancer in the future.
Here’s the latest advice in a nutshell:
1. Apply sunscreen for everyday activities
When the UV Index is forecast to reach 3 or above, it’s recommended that sunscreen is applied every day to the face, ears, neck, scalp if uncovered - and all parts of the body not covered by clothing. Aim to apply sunscreen as part of your morning routine to protect your skin from the harmful effects of everyday sun exposure.
2. Apply sunscreen + other measures for prolonged outdoor exposure
During planned or prolonged periods of sun exposure, it’s recommended that you apply sunscreen as well as other sun protection measures (i.e. a hat, sunglasses, clothing to cover as much of the skin as possible, staying in the shade where possible and scheduling outdoor activities to avoid the middle part of the day (ideally between 10am and 4pm during daylight savings months).
Make sure you use a broad spectrum SPF30+ sunscreen and reapply every two hours or after swimming, exercise or towel drying. Sunscreen shouldn’t be used to help you ‘get a tan’, but rather as one of the strategies to reduce your exposure to harmful UV radiation (along with shade, hats, clothing and sunglasses).
Above: when the UV index is 3 or above, sunscreen should be applied
What days/months should you wear sunscreen?
It’s been a long, hot summer - but what about the colder months? The chart above shows the average seasonal range of peak UVI in New Zealand (averaged over one hour at solar noon or when the sun is the strongest).
This means applying sunscreen every day for most of the year to meet these standards. Obviously if you’re going skiing or snowboarding during the winter months you’ll be exposed to more UV, so you can assume the green values won’t be accurate – so make sure you apply sunscreen!
To check each day’s UV levels, you can download NIWA’s helpful UV app, uv2Day, or see NIWA’s website. And if you have been out in the sun a lot this summer, remember to book a regular Full Body MoleMap to keep track of any changes to your skin.
1. When to apply sunscreen: a consensus statement for Australia and New Zealand, D. Whiteman, R. Neale, J. Aitken, L. Gordon, A. Green, M. Janda, C. Olsen, P. Soyer, on behalf of the Sunscreen Summit Policy Group, 25 January 2019. 2. MOH, 2016. Cancer: New Registrations and Deaths 2013.