About UV exposure and health

This section gives information about UV (ultraviolet) radiation, and how it can affect our health.

On this page:

Why is UV exposure important to health?
What is UV radiation?
Health effects of excess UV exposure
Too little UV exposure can lead to vitamin D deficiency
New Zealand's UV levels
The UV Index
Reducing your risk of skin cancer

Why is UV exposure important to health?

Our main exposure to UV (ultraviolet) radiation is through sunlight. UV exposure can affect our health in a number of ways: 

  • Too much UV exposure can cause health problems, including melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancer, and cataracts. 
  • Too little UV exposure can lead to vitamin D deficiency, which can affect bone health. 

New Zealand has relatively high UV levels, and one of the highest melanoma rates in the world.  

What is UV radiation?

UV (ultraviolet) radiation is part of a broad spectrum of wavelengths from the sun. UV radiation has a shorter wavelength than visible light, and we can’t feel or see it.

Most UV radiation is absorbed by the ozone layer. However, some UV radiation gets through to reach Earth’s surface.

UV radiation is classified into three types, according to the wavelength: UVA, UVB and UVC.  UVA and UVB are the most harmful types to our health.

Health effects of excess UV exposure

Too much UV exposure can cause health problems. Melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer are the most serious effects of excess UV. New Zealand has one of the highest rates of melanoma incidence in the world. 

The main health effects from excess UV exposure include:

  • melanoma
  • non-melanoma skin cancer
  • sunburn
  • cortical cataracts
  • sun spot (solar kertosis)
  • surfer's eye (pterygium)
  • reactivation of herpes labialis
  • eye cancer.

UV exposure causes about 90 percent of skin cancer.  A person’s UV exposure and risk of developing skin cancer depends on:

  • genetics – including skin pigmentation (people with fairer skin are more at risk)
  • behaviours – using sun protection, covering up, sun tanning, use of sun beds
  • cultural – for example, clothes worn
  • immune competence – for example, having HIV increases the risk of developing skin cancer. 

Read the latest statistics on melanoma on the melanoma webpage.

Too little UV exposure can lead to vitamin D deficiency

We need a small amount of UV exposure to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is important for good bone health, and sunlight is our main source. Low vitamin D levels can cause:

  • rickets (resulting in bowed legs and knocked knees) in children
  • osteoporosis and osteomalacia (affecting the bones) in adults.

Read the latest statistics on vitamin D deficiency on the vitamin D deficiency webpage.

New Zealand’s UV levels

In New Zealand, UV levels are higher:

  • during summer: UV levels are highest during summer, and are also high during autumn and spring
  • in the north:  UV levels are higher closer to the equator
  • on sunny days: as clouds can reduce the amount of UV reaching Earth
  • during the middle of the day: UV levels are typically highest from 11am to 3pm.

In New Zealand, peak UV levels are about 40 percent higher than in similar latitudes in North America [1]. This is because:

  1. The Earth is closer to the sun in December and January 
    The Earth has an elliptical orbit, and passes closest to the Sun during December and January. This means that the sun is relatively close to New Zealand in summer. 
  2. Low air pollution levels lead to higher UV levels
    New Zealand has a relatively ‘clean’ atmosphere due to its remoteness and low population density. This means that UV radiation can pass through the atmosphere relatively unhindered. 
  3. Ozone hole lets through more UV radiation 
    In summer, ozone-depleted air moves over New Zealand from Antarctica. This ozone hole means there are less ozone molecules to absorb UV radiation before it reaches Earth’s surface.

Read more about UV levels in New Zealand on the daily UV levels webpage.

The UV Index

The standard way to report UV levels is the Ultraviolet Radiation Index (UVI). The UVI is an international, scientific measure of the level of UV radiation from the sun.

The higher the number on the UVI index, the higher the radiation level. A UV Index of 3 or more requires protection from the sun. At this level, UV levels are enough to damage the skin, and increase the risk of skin cancer. 

Table 1: UV index levels and sun protection precautions UVindextable

Source: McKenzie 2008 [2]

Reducing your risk of skin cancer

Be sunsmart – protect yourself when UV Index is 3 or above. You can protect yourself with:

  • sunscreen
  • hat
  • sunglasses
  • sun protective clothing
  • staying in the shade
  • staying indoors during the middle of the day.

Visit the SunSmart website

Get some sunshine each day during winter. This is particularly important during winter for people living in the South Island, to help prevent vitamin D deficiency.

Get checked for skin cancer at your health professional. 

 References

1. McKenzie R, Bodeker G, Scott G, Slusser J, Lantz L. 2006. Geographical differences in erythemally-weighted UV measured at mid-latitude USDA sites. Photochemical and Photobiological Sciences 5(3): 2223-2226. doi: 10.1039/B510943D

2. McKenzie R. 2008. A Climatology of UVI for New Zealand. Wellington: NIWA.