Is It Legal To Sunbathe Topless In Australia?

Is It Legal To Sunbathe Topless In Australia?

Picture the scene: You’re sunbaking on a secluded stretch of beach with your boyfriend. Nobody is around, so you decide to remove your bikini top and work on your all-over tan. Did you just break the law? Or do conservative ninnies need to mind their own damn business?

Topless bathing image from Shutterstock

While it is socially acceptable for men to sunbathe topless, there is still a stigma attached to women who choose to indulge in the same practice. This has rankled women’s rights activists who find the double-standard to be (literally) suffocating. After all, why should one set of nipples be smothered in clothing while the other set gets to bask in the open air?

Australia’s obsession with what women can and can’t wear at the beach stems from the recreational bathing boom of the 1930s. For decades, beach inspectors would patrol the dunes, meticulously measuring the swimsuits of female bathers to ensure public decency was being adhered to.

Unsurprisingly, the first woman to wear a bikini on Bondi Beach was ordered to change by Waverley Council members. If newspaper reports of the time can be believed, the woman was also charged with offensive behaviour — a tough price to pay for risque trend setting.

As recently as the 1960s, lifeguards could forcibly remove bathers from NSW beaches for dressing “immodestly” under Ordinance 52 of the Local Government Act. (This wasn’t limited to topless bathers either: a wide range of commercially available swimsuits were also deemed immodest.) In 1961 alone, 75 female bathers were ejected from a single beach because their swimsuits did not conform to regulations.

It was an unfair law that targeted body shapes as much as clothing. A voluptuous or long-legged woman could find herself in trouble for wearing the same style bikini as countless other bathers. For women with a liberal attitude to their bodies, it was doubtlessly a frustrating time.

Eventually, Ordinance No. 52 was replaced with a less restrictive rule that simply required bathers to be clad in a “proper and adequate bathing costume.” As with obscenity laws, there is no precise definition of what a “proper and adequate” swimsuit entails. The answer varies widely depending on the group or community being asked.

So is topless bathing legal in Australia? Technically, yes. Each state’s indecent exposure laws are restricted to the genital area — as long as your hooha and/or budgie is covered up, the police don’t care what else you show off.

However, this doesn’t mean you can bathe topless anywhere you please. Many local councils impose their own rules when it comes to nudity, particularly in public pools. While they can’t actually charge you for being topless, they can ask you to cover up or leave the premises, just like those prudish beach inspectors from the 1930s.

Thankfully, this tends to be less of an issue on public beaches. Most beach authorities turn a blind eye to the occasional bared breast, regardless of what their house rules imply. If you remain in the general vicinity of your towel, going topless is unlikely to warrant any attention from life guards.

With that said, there are still some issues to be mindful of. For example, don’t be surprised if you end up on the internet courtesy of some passing creeper or grotty paparazzo — technically, you don’t need permission to take photos of a stranger’s breasts if they are in a public space. You may also draw the ire of parents and older bathers who feel your boobs are an affront to society. Fun times.

While you aren’t breaking any laws, it might be better to hit one of Australia’s nude beaches if you’re keen to indulge in some topless sunbathing. Oh, and above all else, remember to slip-slop-slap! (Well, maybe just slop and slap.)

Did you just catch yourself wondering if something was legal or not? Let us know and we may be able to answer it in our next Is It Legal? feature.


  • Maybe it is about time we stopped promoting a tan as our ideal.
    It’s all about the “grass is greener” complex. In countries to our north those with darker skin are forever trying to lighten it, while we with lighter skin are forever trying to darken it.
    Plus, there is the skin-cancer factor. As with smoking, we now know that a tan isn’t healthy and is, in fact, unhealthy.

    • A tan is not unhealthy. People avoiding the sun is just as bad as those who spend to much time in it. There has been an increase to vitamin d deficiency in people in western countries (US around 3/4 of teens are vit d deficient in aus around 30% adults). Vit D deficiency causes all sorts of problems but is particularly nasty in elderly aiding osteoporosis (fracture a hip at 60+ and it is essentially a death sentence).

      As with many many things its about moderation and the amount you need is dependent on your location (vic people require more time in the sun compared to Queensland for example). For me getting just the adequate amount of sun (20mins a day) leads to a healthy tan.

      • there is ZERO doubt a tan is unhealthy – it is a reaction to cellular damage in an attempt to try to protect your DNA. You should be avoiding sun in the middle of the day 10am-2pm (11-3 DST) entirely, and wearing sunscreen for those 20 minutes.

        • Tanning is 100% controlled by genetics. The risks of skin cancer largely are as well. Where you sit on the von Luschan scale or fitzpatrick system can be a good gauge when combined with accurate hereditary information. Some people have the ability to tan from very little UV exposure – even just the recommended amount, others need to bathe in it for days and literally fry their skin, its highly dependent on the number of melanocytes and how sensitive they are to UV damage (this varies largely from person to person). I’m not saying you should go out and fry your skin – that’s idiotic.

          An outright statement that a tanned person is an unhealthy one is absurd it’s not black and white and people should take the responsibility to work out what is safe for them.

          • mate – by the time your melanocytes extend their pseudopoda the damage is done. they are responding to it. Wake up

      • So VIt D deficiency is as bad as skin cancer ?

        Yes Vi D deficiency is bad, but as others have said tanning is bad.

        You don’t need to tan to get enought Vit D.

        Says that a few minutes in summer (which i take as much less than 20mins) a day is all you need, may – august you need around 20mins a day (of course it depends how dark you skin is, so the more tanned you get the more sun you need for vit d)

        • Yep and personally i tan up from just 10mins sun in the morning (~9am) and 10mins in the arvo around 4pm in summer. See my post above but my issue is in making blanket statements like “a tanned person is not healthy one”. It’s varies largely from person to person.

          In regards to vit d deficiency its relatively new research but it does point to aiding many chronic diseases somewhat ironically including cancer (kidney & heart disease, osteoporosis are the big ones).

          • I still think the blanket statement that there is no such thing as a healthy tan holds true. If you tan at 10minutes in summer, while using spf 50+ sunscreen you most likely don’t need more than 5mins (as the cancer site suggests only a few mins a day suggests in summer).

          • Wearing sunscreen defeats the purpose of getting xmins of sun a day. Whilst wearing sunscreen you can spend all day in the sun and (theoretically) you won’t tan or produce any vitamin d regardless of your ability to tan. Of course in the real world you will get some sun damage due to missing areas or the sunscreen wearing off (thus vit d production and a tan depending on your melanocytes).

            Blanket statements in either direction are equally stupid. Just because one person tans easily with minimal UV exposure does not make them unhealthy. It’s just as stupid as saying that a fair person who doesn’t tan but gets adequate sun is unhealthy.

            The problem is in peoples perception of attractiveness – its got nothing to do with health and it shouldn’t be labeled as such.

      • In the bin with articles (and commenters) that encourage tanning as healthy without even the most perfunctory bit of Dr Googling.

        And even endocrinologists are beginning to recognise that vitamin D deficiency isn’t as big a deal as has been previously thought:

      • Perhaps it should be rephrased to: Seeking a tan when you are not genetically predisposed to it is unhealthy. And the fact that it is considered a popular look means that far too many people DO exactly that.

  • “So is topless bathing legal in Australia? Technically, yes.”

    Took a while but you finally answered the question.

  • Although I might be told to go “back to my country” by those who criticise topless sunbathing, I struggle to believe some people in Australia have issues with this matter. In Spain, where I come from, it wasn’t until 1975 that we came out of a ultra-conservative dictatorship. Nowadays, topless tanning is broadly accepted to the point that it’s not even a topic of discussion. Get over it, don’t be afraid of the naked body. Saddest part of the issue is that, from what I have experienced, biggest prejudice comes from other women.

  • I guess you should wear what you would be comfortable being seen in, in the background of someone’s Facebook selfie.

  • its not illegal 4 women to go topless on beach in Australia.. plenty women do and none get told to cover up.

  • So GLAD that my parents brought me to Australia, where ” the su always chinees”, as my uncle reported returning to Gouda, The Netherlands! I have certainly worked on my ‘tan’ on Australia’s / Sydney’s – “legal oude beaches” ~ JUST!!! what the doctor’s!!

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