Here comes the sun

DANGER OVERHEAD: Many New Zealanders don't understand when to protect themselves from the sun.
DANGER OVERHEAD: Many New Zealanders don't understand when to protect themselves from the sun.

The sun-smart message has changed from a UV index to a much clearer alert tool. Kate Mead reports on the science behind the new look. 

The days of barbecues and beaches are in reach but, even though we're in the clutches of erratic spring weather, looming clouds won't block those ultraviolet rays. It's never too soon to be sun smart, especially when New Zealand leads the world in melanoma mortality rates.

For eight years New Zealanders have received sun-smart information from the colourful Ultraviolet Index. From this month, it has been replaced by the Sun Protection Alert tool, a graphic designed to give daily information outlining the most vital times to protect yourself from the sun.

The new tool (above) shows the entire time period that sun protection is required. The previous UV Index (below),  which was the main message for eight years.
The new tool (above) shows the entire time period that sun protection is required. The previous UV Index (below), which was the main message for eight years.

"Really, the key thing [is reinforcing] the link between sunburn and melanoma being the deadliest form of skin cancer," says Wayde Beckman, marketing and communications adviser for the Health Sponsorship Council (HSC). "Our key priority is to make people aware of that link and really, they should at all costs avoid being sunburnt and ... we're not just talking about the blistering type of sunburn here. We're talking about reddening of the skin and any burn that results in pain for one or two days."

The UV Index originated in Europe and was a collaborative project between the World Health Organisation and a cluster of other constituents, including the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Meteorological Organisation, the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation, and the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection. It was similar to the fire danger alert, where low numbers on the green side indicate low danger and higher numbers on red and purple indicate high danger.

The model could be adjusted for different countries, but Beckman says it has proven to be too complicated in getting across an effective sun-smart message for New Zealanders.


"We found that people really didn't understand it [and] how their behaviour should be modified the higher the level goes," says Beckman. He led the new Sun Protection Alert initiative on behalf of the HSC, a Ministry of Health-funded organisation that runs public health programmes. He worked with the MetService and Niwa, and conducted research in consultation with the Cancer Council of Victoria, Australia, as well as consumer testing. The results showed most people wanted to know the specific danger times of UV rays exposure. "People understood that generally you need to take sun protection between 10am and 4pm ... but that time range could vary, it depends if you're in Invercargill or if you're in Kaitaia.

"This new model dictates the period and that period changes from one day to the next as you go through the summer season."

The Sun Protection Alert, which appears on the Sunday Star-Times weather page from today, will also be posted daily on the MetService website throughout summer. The main message of "protection required" will remain constant, but the times will change and there are six different statements that will be published.

"There's a couple of myths that we're trying to dispel with regard to the risk of sunburn, and that is that you can't get burnt on cool days, and that you can't get burnt on cloudy days, whereas we know that people do, and a lot of people do because they're under a false sense of security. So one of the messages that we'll change out in that respect is if it was a cooler day and it was under 15 degrees, the message would be `even on cooler days'," says Beckman. "So the new tool has been calibrated, if you like, to suit the weather conditions."

THE SUN-SMART message has been around for about 20 years, but many people still covet a summer tan.

"The perception of tanning has changed over the years, so a lot of people might not lie around on the beach bathed in oil to try and achieve a tan, but I know that a lot of people still are quite happy to acquire a tan with the idea that that tan is going to make them look and feel more healthy. We understand that, but unfortunately what's happening is a lot of people, in their quest to get a tan, are getting burnt in the process."

The effect of our skin sizzling in the sun is well known, the most lethal being melanoma.

"About 400 people die from melanoma each year in New Zealand, so that's very serious. It's the fourth most common registered cancer," says Beckman. "It's absolutely avoidable."

While you needn't spend summer lurking in shadows, the message of this campaign is to be wise when you are in the sun. "We're not by any means telling people to avoid the sun. It's really about just making sure that you plan and protect yourself on a daily basis from being sunburnt, or from being overexposed to the sun's UV radiation. It doesn't need to get in the way of your lifestyle. There are a couple of measures you can take to still get out there and enjoy your summer ... and that's what we're encouraging people to do."

Skin cancer risks for fair-skinned people are elevated, but Beckman says everyone needs to protect themselves. "It doesn't really matter what your skin type is, at the end of the day you can still get sunburnt, and it's a sunburn in itself that is a major risk for melanoma."

People under 20 are more susceptible to the melanoma-causing UV rays, but that's not the only danger. "There's other types of skin cancer as well ... that are also caused by overexposure to the sun and not just by sunburn, it's actually from prolonged exposure." Sun spots and premature ageing also impact the skin and using a sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor of 30 to cover both UVA and UVB ultraviolet rays is recommended.

The signs of melanoma are indicated by the change in appearance of a mole, whether it's shape, size or colour. Aside from staying out of the sun, checking your moles regularly is your best protection against melanoma and, if you notice any change, visit your doctor.

"Chances are that it'll be benign, it'll be nothing, but you're better off finding out. If you can catch these things early then your chances of surviving, and not having any future problems, are really good," says Beckman.

SunSmart Week runs from November 13 to 19.

Sunday Star Times