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Some exposure to sunlight has health benefits, such as through stimulating the production of Vitamin D by the body (this aids the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which are essential for healthy bones). Vitamin D is available through nutritional sources, but this does not always provide enough. There is also evidence that exposure to sunlight improves mental wellbeing and may be linked to a reduction in the risk of developing multiple sclerosis.

However the detrimental effects of excessive exposure to sunlight are serious. In the short-term, there is the risk of sunburn, which can be painful and if severe enough considered a first-degree burn. In the long term, there is an increased risk of developing skin cancer, which can be fatal.

Risks of exposure to too much ultraviolet radiation

There are a number of negative side effects that can result from spending to much time in the sun, or indeed in a solarium. These include:

  • Deterioration of the skin, including premature ageing and loss of elasticity.
  • Rashes, itchiness and dryness.
  • Damage to the eyes.
  • Sunburn.
  • Skin cancer.

People whose pattern of sun exposure has been intermittent are at an increased risk of developing melanoma* or basal cell carcinoma*. Those who have more continuous exposure (such as outdoor workers) are at an increased risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma*. Evidence also shows that overexposure to sunlight in childhood and adolescence is an important risk factor in developing skin cancer. (*Note: these are all forms of skin cancer.)

See Cancer for statistics on melanoma and other cancers.

How many Australians use sun protection measures?

Skin cancers are largely preventable through simple measures such as wearing protective clothing, applying sunscreens and avoiding the sun. More information on sun protection methods can be found at the website of The Cancer Council Australia.

Analysis of the 1995 National Health Survey found that:

  • 77% of the population reported always or usually taking some sun protection measure or not going out in the sun.
  • Children aged under 2 years and 2-4 year olds were the most protected groups, with 96% and 92% respectively being routinely protected from the sun.
  • In 15-24 year olds, only 69% used sun protection or avoided the sun on a regular basis.

Further information

For more information see Chapter 4 of Australia's health 2012.