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Solar UVR and cancer

Solar UVR (ultraviolet radiation) is invisible energy produced by the sun. It's made up of three wavelengths: UVA, UVB and UVC.

Both UVA and UVB can reach the earth's surface and are classified as human carcinogens. This means they cause cancer. Every time we overexpose our skin to radiation from the sun, some of our skin cells are damaged and we increase our risk of developing skin cancer.

A sunburn or a tan is a sign of skin being damaged by solar UVR. All skin types can be damaged, but fairer skin is at increased risk.

Solar UVR has also been linked with cancer of the eye, cataracts (clouding on the lens of the eye) and pterygium (a growth on the white of the eye).

Your cancer risk from solar UVR varies depending upon these environmental factors:

  • solar elevation – when the sun is higher in the sky there will be higher levels of solar UVR
  • ozone – ozone thickness changes daily. When the ozone layer is thicker, less UVB will reach the earth
  • cloud cover – solar UVR can pass through light clouds so solar UVR levels on cloudy days may be similar to those on a cloud free day
  • ground surface reflectivity – highly reflective surfaces can increase surrounding levels of solar UVR including concrete, snow, glass, water and polished metals
  • altitude – higher altitude means higher solar UVR
  • proximity to the equator – the closer you are to the equator, the higher solar UVR is generally.

More than 1.2 million Australian workers are exposed to solar UVR at levels five to 10 times more than indoor workers. As a result, if you are exposed to solar UVR at work you are at greater risk of developing skin cancer. Each year in Australia, it is estimated that 200 melanomas and 34,000 non-melanomas are caused by exposure to solar UVR at work.

For information on UV radiation and working outdoors, download our brochure:

Information for employers on UV radiation and working outdoors can be found in our booklet:

The UV Index

The UV Index describes the strength of solar UVR. The higher the number, the stronger the solar UVR and the faster unprotected skin will be damaged.

If you work outside frequently, you should always use protective clothing including hats, sunglasses and sunscreen, regardless of the UV Index.

If you work outside occasionally, then you should use protection when the UV is 3 and above.

A UV forecast for many locations is available from

What you need to know about solar UVR

Temperature is not related to solar UVR strength. Our skin can be damaged without us knowing, because we cannot feel UVR.

There are two types of solar UVR:

  • direct UVR, which arrives directly from the sun
  • diffuse UVR, which is scattered by the atmosphere and reflective surfaces.

On average you will receive 50% of your solar UVR from each type. Solar UVR can still damage your skin in winter. So sun protection is required whenever the UV Index is 3 or higher or when you are outside for long periods near highly reflective surfaces, e.g. snow or water.

Diagram of UV pointing at human.

Figure 1. Direct and diffuse solar UVR. Illustration (by Ography), courtesy of Cancer Council Victoria

 For vitamin D concerns please see our position statement.

Effective controls

Where there is solar UVR, the employer must ensure a protection plan is in place. Safe Work Australia's Guide on Exposure to Solar Ultraviolet Radiation (UVR), the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency's (ARPANSA) Occupational Exposure to Ultraviolet Radiation, and Cancer Council’s Skin Cancer and Outdoor Work PDF outlines how you can manage employees' exposure to solar UVR.

A summary of recommended controls is outlined in Table 1 (a combination of controls should be used).

Workers must also:

  • take care of their own health and safety
  • not negatively affect the health and safety of other people
  • follow any reasonable instruction and workplace health and safety policies.

Workplaces should eliminate or reduce exposure to identified hazards using the hierarchy of control (Figure 2) and implement a risk management process. Workers should always be involved in detecting hazards and control measures in the workplace. Training workers on workplace hazards and the policies in place to manage them is also a work health and safety requirement.

Yellow and blue triangle diagram.

Figure 2. The hierarchy of risk control

A sun protection policy should also be developed, to explain how and why solar UVR needs to be managed. A sample policy is available in Safe Work Australia's Guide on exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation (UVR).

A SunSmart workplace will have:

  • a periodic risk assessment using the hierarchy of risk control
  • sun protection control measures: provision of PPE (personal protective equipment) such as hats, sunscreen, sunglasses, shade, long clothing, etc.
  • sun protection policies (including penalties for non-compliance)
  • training for employees to work safely in the sun
  • role models.

For any concerns related to control measures at your workplace, or for more information, contact:

  • your workplace supervisor or management (if you are an employee)
  • your workplace health and safety representative or union representative
  • state and territory work health and safety regulators
  • Safe Work Australia

How do I detect cancer early and reduce my risk?

Contact your doctor if anything on your skin:

  • has changed size, shape or colour
  • itches or bleeds
  • looks different from other spots around it
  • has not healed within three weeks
  • was not there before.

To find out what you can do to create a workplace that aims to reduce cancer risk, contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Table 1. Summary of controls for solar UVR exposure

ShadeWhere possible, shade should be provided either as permanent structures or as portable structures, including canopies and screens. If it is not possible to work in a shaded area, shade should be provided during breaks. Due to indirect solar UVR, shade should not be the only control.
Reflective surfacesWhere possible, change or avoid reflective surfaces. Soft or rough surfaces reflect less UVR and are safer than hard or smooth surfaces. Painting surfaces a less reflective colour (dark colours) also helps to reduce reflective UVR.
Window tintingTinted car windows help to reduce the amount of solar UVR entering a vehicle.
Rotate workRotate jobs between workers if some activities can be done in shaded areas. Plan to complete outdoor jobs early in the morning or later in the afternoon when solar UVR levels are lower.
Personal protective equipment

Sun protective work clothing includes long-sleeved shirt with a collar and long pants. The ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of the material should be as high as possible (50+). The colour, closeness of weave and condition of the clothes can affect their ability to protect from UVR. Cotton, polyester and linen is best, as they are lightweight, allow sweat to evaporate and, when tightly woven, can protect against 95% of UVR.

Broad-brimmed hats that shade the face, ears and neck should be provided. The brim should be at least 7.5cm (6cm for bucket hats). Legionnaire hats are also suitable. Baseball caps do not provide good sun protection. The UPF of the fabric should be as high as possible (50+).

Close-fitting, wraparound sunglasses with a lens category of at least two should be used.

Sunscreen should have an SPF of 30 or higher. It should be broad spectrum (this means it will filter both UVA and UVB radiation) and water-resistant. It should be applied 20 minutes before going out into the sun. Re-application should occur at least every two hours (one teaspoon per limb). No sunscreen offers 100% protection. Therefore it should be used in combination with other PPE. A SPF 30 lip balm should also be used.

SunSmart UV alertEncourage workers to use the UV alert via their smartphones or display the alert in a common area.
Skin checksAll workers should be encouraged and provided with information on why and how to check their skin. A handy self-examination guide is available on High-risk workers should be seen by their doctor every 12 months.

Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses bought for sun protection at work are tax-deductible. For more information, visit the Australian Taxation Office website.


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Find out more about workplace cancers