Not so shady: Radiation safety authority launches new UV label for outdoor shade cloths

Australia’s radiation safety agency is launching a new UV label for outdoor shade products like shade sails, umbrellas and beach cabanas so consumers can check the level of sun protection provided.

Shade is one of five recommended ways to stay safe from the sun, along with clothing (slip), sunscreen (slop), a hat (slap) and sunglasses (slide).

But the UV protection provided by shade cloth can vary widely.

Given Australia’s high rates of skin cancer and UV sun damage, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) wants to make it easier for consumers to check whether outdoor products like umbrellas, tents, shade sails and awnings provide adequate sun protection.

The agency has launched a new Ultraviolet Effectiveness (UVE) 95+ swing tag, which when attached indicates a product has been independently tested and verified by the agency as providing a minimum level of sun protection.

Dr Stuart Henderson, ARPANSA’s assistant director of electromagnetic radiation and UV radiation exposure assessment, tells Cosmos really effective shading needs to block more than 95% of UV radiation.

“It all depends on the material, what it’s made from, what good quality it is, what condition it’s in.”

He says if you can still see sky through a shade sail installed over a swimming pool or playground, it’s probably providing less protection than shade cloths in a tighter weave and darker colour with some sort of backing or coating. 

Henderson says ARPANSA’s new testing and labelling system better reflects the UV protection provided by outdoor shade cloths. The agency has developed a new testing and verification method which is different to the approach for sun protective clothing because outdoor shade materials are generally further away from the person seeking protection.

ARPANSA tests shade cloth products by shining an intense light ‘sun simulator lamp’ through the material. The rating is based on how much UV is transmitted through the material at different wavelengths.

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People can still be exposed to UV radiation when they’re under shade, even a shade cloth which meets the UVE 95+% labelling. There’s better protection in the centre of a large shaded area, than at the edge. And scattered UV can still get through if it’s reflected off glass, water or concrete.

That’s why ARPANSA always recommends adopting as many of the five different forms of protection as possible when being outdoors in the sun is unavoidable, Henderson says.

“No one protection measure can be thought of as the silver bullet that’s going to protect you completely […] the advice is always to use all those measures in combination, or as many of them as you can in order to protect your skin.”

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