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  • 10 myths about working outdoors and skin cancer

    10 myths about working outdoors and skin cancer
    23 January 2018

    1. You can only get burnt if it’s sunny outside

    We know that skin damage is caused by UV rays rather than temperature or sunshine, which means it’s entirely possible to get sunburnt on windy, cool or cloudy days as UV radiation can pass through clouds. In fact, cooler days in summer are likely to have a similar UV index to a warmer summer day, and cloudy days can actually magnify the damage.

    For outdoor workers, year-round sun protection is recommended, and particular precaution should be taken when UV is 3 and above. The SunSmart app, the Bureau of Meteorology or Sonny Burns’s campaign website are reliable sources to check UV levels daily for your local area.

    2. People with olive skin can’t get skin cancer

    Skin cancer can, and does occur across all skin types. Regardless of your skin tone, whether fair or dark, care must be taken in the sun. While people who tan easily or who have naturally dark skin may be at a lower risk of developing skin cancer compared to people with fair skin who burn easily, even a slight tan is a sign that UV has damaged your skin cells, and this damage builds up over your lifetime—increasing the risk of skin cancer with each exposure.

    3. You need to be unprotected in the sun to get your vitamin D dose

    Most people don’t require much UV exposure to get their vitamin D dose, and we certainly don’t need to expose ourselves to the sun during peak UV times. For someone whose job is based inside, even typical day-to-day activities such as gardening, walking etc. is normally enough sun exposure to maintain vitamin D levels, even when using sun protection too. As an outdoor worker who is outside on a daily basis, you will receive plenty of sun exposure for vitamin D, even when fully protected with a hat, sunscreen, long sleeves and sunglasses.

    4. Skin cancer is easy to treat and if it happens, you’ll see it.

    Each year, about 2,000 Australians die from skin cancer and it’s estimated that 200 cases of melanoma and 34,000 cases of non-melanoma skin cancers in Australia are caused by UV damage at work. When many people think of treating skin cancer, they think that it’s a matter of removing a small section of skin, or having a lesion burnt off. In reality, just like many other forms of cancer, treating skin cancer can involve complex surgery and further cancer treatment.

    Melanoma, which is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, can also develop on areas of the body that are not exposed to the sun such as private areas of your body, soles of the feet, or the scalp, so it is important to check all areas thoroughly and regularly for changes. Become familiar with your own skin, checking it yourself regularly so that if changes were to occur, you’ll notice them. Look out for spots that change in colour, size or shape or sores that fail to heal.  While most skin cancers can be treated successfully if diagnosed in the early stages, it is not a substitute for preventative practices. It’s so easy to be SunSmart and once you start, it’ll become routine in no time.

    5. Only sunbathers get skin cancer

    While many of us now appreciate that deliberate tanning behaviours are extremely dangerous, there’s still the misconception that incidental sun exposure is largely harmless. In truth, Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. Our high UV levels mean that we need to take precaution to protect ourselves during daily activities like mowing the lawn or working outdoors, as every bit of skin damage builds up, whether it is from sunbathing, or from other activities.

    6. You never get sunburnt, only tanned, so you don’t need to bother with sun protection

    A tan and sunburn are both visible signs of skin damage, but skin damage also happens long before the visible sign occurs. Because outdoor workers spend so much time outside, sun protection is recommended year-round. It’s not just sunburn which spikes your risk of skin cancer; every time you’re outside and exposed to UV rays, it all adds up.

    7. You have to be in the sun to get skin damage

    It’s possible to be under shade and still experience skin damage. UV rays are reflected and scattered by the environment (e.g. buildings, concrete, water, sand etc.), so even if you are under shade, UV can still reach you. Remember that UV is invisible and you can’t feel, so it will damage your skin without you knowing. You should still be protecting your skin even in the shade.

    It’s entirely possible to also damage your skin from UV radiation which has passed through a window, either in the home or in the car. Glass reduces the transmission of UV but doesn’t completely block it. Window tinting could be considered to reduce the exposure. More commonly though, people are sunburnt in cars with the windows down, so opt to keep the windows up and switch on the air conditioning if it’s available. Read more about tinted windows here.

    8. If you wear SPF 50, you can stay outside longer without getting sunburnt


    The SPF number tells you the amount of UV that gets through the sunscreen. For example, SPF 30 allows one thirtieth of the ambient UV through the skin, which is equivalent to 3.3 per cent. SPF 50 allows one fiftieth of the UV through, which is equivalent to 2 per cent. The difference between SPF 30 and 50 is very small and going for a higher SPF sunscreen doesn’t mean you can spend longer in the sun. Sunscreen is also easily wiped away and needs to be reapplied every two hours to maintain its effectiveness. No sunscreen is a suit of armour as it can never block 100 per cent of UV radiation, which is why we say sunscreen on its own is never enough. 

    A few other tips on making sure that you get the level of protection you think you’re putting on when you use sunscreen include making sure the sunscreen is within date, it is kept in a cool dry place (i.e. not the glove box of your car), it is applied liberally (equivalent to one teaspoon per exposed limb) and 20 minutes before going outdoors. You should also choose a product that is labelled broad-spectrum, which means it will provide protection from both UVA and UVB.
    Check this video out.

    9. It’s a waste of time trying to protect your skin now if you didn’t in your childhood

    While lots of exposure to the sun’s UV rays in childhood and adolescence significantly increases your risk of skin cancer in later life, research has shown that sun exposure in adulthood is also an important risk. The exact exposure needed to develop skin cancer is not entirely clear and varies from person to person, but what we do know is that you can reduce your risk of skin cancer at any age, whether you are six, 16 or 60, by using recommended sun protection behaviours.

    10. Using too much sunscreen is unsafe and can be harmful.

    In Australia, all sunscreen products need to meet Australian standards. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is the regulatory body that monitors and assesses sunscreen products to ensure efficacy and safety of the products on our shelves. Reviewing the evidence to date, there is confidence that all sunscreens that meet Australian standards do not pose any harm to human health, even when used regularly and in large amounts. When used adequately, sunscreen has been shown to reduce skin cancer risk.

    Outdoor workers are exposed to as much as 10 times the UV of people who work indoors. If you suspect that someone you know may be at risk of developing skin cancer, you can call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information and support, visit cancersa.org.au, or consult with your local GP.

    Diem Luong,

    Community Education Coordinator

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