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UV Index – How does tracking UV levels help you stay safe in the sun?

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UV Index – How does tracking UV levels help you stay safe in the sun?

With our UV exposure and skin cancer rates among the world’s highest, it’s an uncomfortable reality Australia really is a sunburnt country. There’s no benefit in burying our heads in the sand, however. Education is vital to help mitigate the sun’s damaging effects –starting with a crash course in understanding and using the UV Index.

To learn how tracking UV levels can help reduce the risk of sunburn, skin cancer and even premature ageing, read on. Our comprehensive UV Index guide is your essential companion for a safer, sun-smart life Down Under!

What is the UV Index?

Created by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Ultra Violet Radiation Index or UV Index (UVI) is a standard international measurement of the UV radiation reaching the earth’s surface. As this radiation cannot be seen or felt, the UV Index is an incredibly useful tool.

Used for over 20 years, the UVI measures the combined intensity of UVA and UVB rays to determine the times of day and year when sun exposure should be minimised. This is something we simply cannot judge from weather conditions alone, as even a cool, cloudy day can carry a high UV exposure risk.

The Index measures UV radiation on a scale from 0 (Low) to 11+ (Extremely High). According to the Bureau of Meteorology, each point on the Index scale is equivalent to 25 milliWatts/square metre of UV radiation. When the UVI reaches 3 (Moderate) or above, sun protection measures – including the application of a high protection broad-spectrum sunscreen – are recommended.

UV Radiation in Australia

In Australia, our love of the great outdoors and mild weather keeps us outside for much of the year. The downside of this enviable al fresco lifestyle is that UV radiation is a year-round concern. Not only do we spend a lot of time outdoors, we are exposed to higher UVR levels than many parts of the world. While UV levels do vary across the country on any given day, the UV Index reaches 3 or above year-round for much of Australia.

Why is the UV Index so high in Australia?

According to an article written for The Conversation by Cancer Council WA Education and Research Director Terry Slevin and QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute’s David Whiteman, Australia’s high UV radiation levels come down to geography. Specifically, our proximity to the equator. 

Generally speaking, the closer to the equator someone lives, the greater the amount and intensity of sun exposure they receive. That gradient is seen in a comparison of skin cancer rates across Australian states with Queensland reporting much higher rates than New South Wales, which is in turn higher than Victoria,” the authors stated. In addition, “During summer, the Earth’s orbit brings Australia closer to the sun (as compared to Europe during its summer), resulting in an additional 7% solar UV intensity. Coupled with our clearer atmospheric conditions, this means that Australians are exposed to up to 15% more UV than Europeans.”

What Affects UV Intensity?

Cancer Council Victoria’s SunSmart website lists various things that impact UV intensity, from time of day and time of year, to cloud cover, altitude, reflection, scattering and proximity to the equator. It’s easy to see, then, why we can’t make an accurate prediction of UV levels – and should always defer to the UV Index.

UV Radiation in Winter Compared to Summer

While the UV Index is lower in June than January in Australia, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to skip sunscreen in winter. As mentioned, in many parts of the country, the UVI remains at 3 or above throughout the year.

In fact, Hobart and Melbourne are the only Australian capital cities to have average maximum UV levels lower than 3 during the winter months1. In Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, consistently high UV levels necessitate sun protection every day of the year2.  

If you’ve booked an alpine escape, it’s important to also note UV levels are greater at higher altitudes. Snow poses an additional threat, due to its reflective nature. According to the Cancer Council, “On a sunny day, clean fresh snow can reflect as much as 80% of UV radiation. This means that UV radiation not only reaches you directly, it also reaches you indirectly when it is scattered and reflected by the snow.”  

And if you’re concerned with wrinkles? A high protection, broad-spectrum sunscreen is essential all year round, as prematurely ageing UVA rays – which account for 95% of UV radiation we’re exposed to3 – are present at consistent levels throughout the year.

Where to Find the UV Index?

You can access information on daily UV levels and sun protection times via your local BoM weather forecast (available on the website or BOM Weather app). The UVI is also reported in the weather page of many newspapers. 
For more detailed visual information, there are maps and tables that can be viewed inside BoM’s forecast viewer, MetEye. Realtime UV Index charts are also published by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA).

Additionally, the Cancer Council’s SunSmart app provides current and projected UV levels, as well as valuable sun protection advice.

When to Use the UV Index?

To stay safe, it’s important you check the BoM UV Index and sun protection times before you – or your family – take part in outdoor activities. This includes visiting the beach, hiking, swimming, playing or watching outdoor sport, skiing, picnicking, working outdoors, or attending an open-air barbeque, event or school excursion.

But do you need to bother on those days you’re mostly indoors? Following the 2018 Sunscreen Summit, the updated advice of peak health bodies is, “yes”.  

Associate Professor Neale of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute said in a 2019 statement, “Up until now, most public health organisations have recommended applying sunscreen ahead of planned outdoor activities but haven’t specifically recommended applying it every day as part of a morning routine.  

“In Australia, we get a lot of incidental sun exposure from everyday activities such as walking to the bus stop or train station, or hanging out washing.

“In recent years, it has become clear that the DNA damage that causes skin cancer and melanoma accumulates with repeated small doses of sunlight.”

After examining all the evidence, the experts came to a consensus that “Australians should apply sunscreen every day when the maximum UV level is forecast to be three or higher.”

What is a Safe UV Index?

A UV level of 2 or below is considered low risk, and sun protection is not generally considered crucial. However, when the UV Index reaches 3 or above (Moderate), sun protection is recommended. This means that, in many parts of Australia, high protection, broad-spectrum sunscreen should be worn 365 days of the year. Even on those days you’re just running errands or going to work.

Wearable UV Sensors

If you're curious about your personal UV exposure, a wearable UV sensor can be very illuminating. La Roche-Posay My Skin Track UV is a small, wearable sensor that partners with a smartphone app to record your daily UV exposure, as well as pollution and pollen counts. Providing additional information such as the weather and UV Index, it also provides tailored skincare recommendations for each user.

ALWAYS READ THE LABEL. FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS FOR USE.

Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before sun exposure. Sunscreen is only one part of sun protection so wear protective clothing and seek shade. Avoid prolonged sun exposure. Reapply every 2 hours and after swimming, towelling and perspiring in accordance with directions.

References
1. BoM - http://media.bom.gov.au/social/blog/1862/not-just-sunburn-theres-more-to-uv-than-meets-the-eye/
2. SunSmart - https://www.sunsmart.com.au/downloads/communities/festivals-events/festivals-events-checklist-national.pdf
3. WHO - https://www.who.int/uv/faq/whatisuv/en/index2.html

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