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Unintended sunburn: the prevalence, risks and considerations

How often do people receive unintended sunburn, and how can sun protection messages be refined to target these people? Sunburn causes DNA damage to the skin, accelerates skin ageing, and increases a person’s lifetime risk of skin cancer. In fact, sustaining just five sunburns in youth increases a person’s melanoma risk by 80 per cent.

New Zealand has the highest melanoma incidence rate in the world. Primary prevention efforts focus on reducing sunburn incidence and improving sun protection habits among the population. However, sunburn from excessive UV exposure remains common. To reduce sunburn incidence, it is important to look at those individuals who experience unintended sunburn.

Unintended sunburn occurs when a person spends time outdoors without expecting to be exposed to UV radiation for a long enough period to cause sunburn. It can also occur when a person neglects sun protection habits entirely, or when their attempt at using sun protection is inadequate to the conditions. Examples of activities that often incur unintentional sunburn include walking, gardening, driving, swimming, mowing the lawn, or playing outside with children or pets.

A study published in Journal of Skin Cancer used data from the New Zealand Triennial Sun Protection Survey to describe respondents who were not intending to tan but were sunburnt after outdoor UV exposure. Information on socio-demographics, concurrent weather conditions, sun protection attitudes and knowledge, and outdoor behaviour was also collected.

The results showed 13.5 per cent (335 out of 2480) of respondents experienced unintended sunburn during the survey weekend but had not attempted to obtain a tan that summer. Respondents who reported unintended sunburn were more likely than others to have been near water and in unshaded areas, used sunscreen, had higher SunSmart knowledge scores, had lower positive attitudes towards tanning, and were outdoors for a longer duration with less body coverage.

The study’s authors suggested that, as sunburn was unintended, these respondents’ outdoor sun protective behaviours may be amenable to change. Further, future public health initiatives should focus on increasing sun protection habits and reducing potential barriers to accessing sun protection.

Read more about preventing sunburn.


Geraldine F. H. McLeod, Anthony I. Reeder, Andrew R. Gray, and Rob McGee, “Unintended Sunburn: A Potential Target for Sun Protection Messages,” Journal of Skin Cancer, vol. 2017, Article ID 6902942, 8 pages, 2017. doi:10.1155/2017/6902942

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