What is UV damage and how can you protect your skin from it?

The sun-kissed skin sported by many Australians is famed around the world – it’s a testament to our sun-loving culture and why we’re often lovingly referred to as “bronzed Aussies”.

But our understanding of how the sun’s rays and ultra-violet (UV) radiation damages our skin has deepened in recent decades, changing the way we protect and care for it. For Skin Awareness Month, we want to break down what UV damage is and how you can protect your skin from it.

That’s not to say it’s all bad news: there are plenty of ways in which safe sun exposure benefits our overall health, not just that of our skin. In the video above, we’ve looked at what causes UV skin damage, as well as how you can protect your skin now and into the future.

What is UV light?

Light is a form of radiation and the different components of light have different wavelengths. The two wavelengths we are exposed to that can have a particularly worrying impact on our skin are called UVA and UVB. These wavelengths are filtered to different degrees by our planet’s ozone layer and by the glass in our houses, cars and sunglasses. 

How does UV radiation damage skin?

UVB light, which has a shorter wavelength, is perhaps the better-known of the two because it affects our skins upper layers, causing sunburn and some skin cancers.

UVA features a longer wavelength and therefore penetrates deeper into the skin, causing long-term damage like wrinkles, sagging and blotchiness. UVA radiation can also increase our risk of skin cancer, and while it’s technically less potent than it’s UVB counterpart, it is more prevalent in sunlight, meaning it can be just as damaging.

What causes UV damage?

A multitude of factors influence how and why our skin is damaged by UV radiation, but two of the biggest are Australia’s geographic location and our lifetime exposure to harmful UV light.

First, Australians are on the receiving end of a lot more UV exposure than people living on other continents. That’s because we’re a generally outdoorsy people, but also because of our relative proximity to the equator. During summer, the earth’s orbit brings us closer to the sun, which increases UV radiation levels.

You might have heard that there’s a hole in the ozone layer above Australia, meaning we’re more likely to be burned when UV levels increase. While it’s more of a thinning patch than a “hole”, it’s true that the ozone layer is less effective at filtering harmful UVA and UVB light than it once was, meaning our risk of developing skin cancer is higher.

The second part of this puzzle is our lifetime exposure to UV radiation. As we mentioned above, Australians love to spend time outdoors, but long-lasting UV damage isn’t just about a few bad sunburns. Rather, cumulative exposure from days spent at the beach, beside windows or in the car can also cause UV damage.

Is UV damage permanent?

Unfortunately, visible UV damage like wrinkles and pigmentation (or “photoaging”) happens in 72% of men and almost half of women aged under 30^ and, worse still, it’s largely irreversible.

In the case of UV damage, prevention is always the best cure.

How can I protect my skin from UV damage?

The best way to protect your skin from long-term UV damage is to practice constant vigilance. That means wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen* with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of 30 or above whenever you’re exposed to the sun’s rays and reapplying regularly. Yep, even when you’re inside. Limit your overall sun exposure and use protective clothing, hats and eye wear.

It might seem like overkill, but the science says it’s not: generally speaking, windows offer a UV-protection factor (UPF) of 10, meaning you’ll only be exposed to 10% of UV radiation from the sun when you’re inside. Office windows generally offer a better UPF of 50 (allowing 1/50th of the UV radiation through), while the UPF of car windows and windshields varies.

Unfortunately, clouds offer next to no UV protection, so remember to slip, slop and slap on overcast days, too.

If you’re not sure, check the UV rating if you’ll be out and about. The UV index ranges from <2, where there’s a very low risk of exposure to harmful UV rays, to 11+, where the risk of exposure is extremely high.

If the rating is over 2 on a given day, it’s best to err on the side of caution and apply Cetaphil’s SPF50+ Ultra-light Lotion* 20 minutes before you leave the house. It’ll provide up to four hours of protection and can also be worn under make-up, meaning your skin will be protected from sunburn, dehydration, premature ageing, and even some skin cancers. Future you will thank you for it.

*ALWAYS READ THE LABEL. FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS FOR USE. Limit sun exposure and use protective clothing, hats and eye wear. Keep out of eyes. Reapply sunscreen regularly.

^Green AC. Premature ageing of the skin in a Queensland population. Med J Aust 1991; 155:473.