Can tattoos or back hair protect you from the sun?

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Posted

November 25, 2017 06:05:11

Yep, we’ve got it: ‘slip, slop, slap, seek, slide’. But do natural tans, capes of back hair, or tattoos keep you covered?

We’re one of the worst countries in the world when it comes to skin cancer — it’s estimated two in three Australians will be diagnosed with one by the age of 70.

Based on advice from Sid the Seagull, you might assume that being covered up with anything — including body hair and tattoos — would help you stay protected in the sun.

But, unfortunately, even the hair on your head isn’t that great at blocking UV radiation.

Oh, and sitting in the shade isn’t a foolproof option either.

So, let’s clear all that up.

Because, you know, summer.

Tattoos: no good

You might think adding darker dyes to your skin could help protect you from the sun.

But, bad news guys: “tattoos don’t protect your skin from UV damage”.

That’s according to Cancer Council Victoria SunSmart manager Heather Walker.

“So it’s important to cover any exposed skin, including tattooed skin,” Ms Walker says.

On top of that, some dermatologists warn that it might be harder to spot skin cancer on tattooed skin, because any changes could be hidden under the ink.

What about body hair?

Well, dense body hair might be better than tattoos.

But it’s still not great.

In 2008, Australian researchers warned that even a full head of hair provides surprisingly low protection from UV radiation.

They found hair only had a protection factor of between 5 and 17 — much lower than the SPF 30 in sunscreens recommended by health programs such as SunSmart.

If you’re thinking darker hair might be better, the same team found hair colour made no difference.

Instead they found shorter hair on your head might provide slightly more protection than longer hair, possibly because long hair exposes more of the scalp along parts.

Ms Walker says the colour and thickness of your head hair — or body hair — may provide different levels of sun protection.

But ultimately “you should not rely on your hair as a form of sun protection,” she says.

So don’t be too cool to wear a hat.

Surely darker skin helps?

“While people with naturally darker skin may not burn, all skin types can be damaged by UV radiation and are susceptible to skin cancer,” Ms Walker says.

She says people with darker skin should still be using sun protection.

“Although the risk of melanoma is lower, there is some evidence that it is more likely to be found at a later, more dangerous stage than a person with lighter skin,” she says.

OK, and what if your skin is darker because you’ve picked up a wicked tan?

“A tan is a sign of UV damage and skin cells in trauma and is the body’s way of trying to protect you from more UV damage. This damage adds up over time increasing the risk of skin cancer,” Ms Walker says.

If you really want to look more tanned, her advice is to go with a fake tan.

But clothing’s safe, right!?

I’ve got some bad news.

You can’t just pick anything out of the wardrobe and be safe in the sun.

Clothing’s ability to protect you from the sun is measured using the Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating system, which is roughly comparable to SPF for sunscreens.

Generally, thin white cotton t-shirts only have a UPF of about 5.

However, the UPF of clothing can change significantly based on the material it’s made from, how densely the fabric’s woven, and its colour.

So double denim for your next trip outdoors is probably your best bet.

Unfortunately, your stretched old rashie could be a problem too.

“Check the UPF rating to ensure your rashie is offering protection,” Ms Walker says.

“Rashies can also stretch over time resulting in less protection so it’s important to make sure your rashie hasn’t stretched.”

Just when the ‘distressed rashie’ look was coming back in…

Surely sitting in the shade works?

Look, I’m sorry, but no — not entirely.

Ms Walker says a good shade structure will block out about 75 per cent of UV radiation.

“No matter where you are, never rely on shade alone — reflective UV rays can still reach you in the shade by bouncing off surfaces like grass, sand, concrete and water,” she says.

“For best protection, use shade with clothing, sunscreen, a hat, shade and sunglasses.”

Or just never leave the house.

And while you’re stuck indoors, why not check out ABC iView’s new TV show Sciencey to hear the full story? (And to see Dr Niraj Lal rocking double denim at the beach.)

Want more science from across the ABC?

Topics:

science-and-technology,

safety,

health,

australia



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