From Call Time on Melanoma’s Lisa Patulny
No, there’s no such thing as a safe suntan.
In 2020, I’d like to think that most Australians are pretty across the prevalence of skin cancer and melanoma in our country. I’d like to believe the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign I grew up with made enough of a dent in our national consciousness to go some ways towards preventing these (largely preventable) cancers. I’d like to comfort myself with the knowledge that the stories of Wes Bonny and Clare Oliver, shared on public TV, have made a difference in our overall education on melanoma. But you know what? I’m not sure that’s true.
You probably know that Australia is considered the skin cancer capital of the world. But did you know that two out of three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they’re 70 years old? That one in 17 Australians will be told they have melanoma before the age of 85? That last year it was estimated that 15,229 Australians would be diagnosed with melanoma? (That shakes out at roughly one diagnosis every half an hour FYI.) Unless you’ve been personally touched by melanoma or know someone who has, it’s unlikely that you did know these things. Because skin cancer, it seems, is the only cancer we’re just not that afraid of.
In my work with Call Time On Melanoma I’ve heard from many women who once believed skin cancer was a rite of passage for Australians. That our outdoorsy lifestyle, full of sun, sand and surf, came at a price. I’ve been told more than once, “I thought you just burned skin cancers off”. There’s no doubt many of us believe that skin cancer is ‘not that bad’ when compared with breast or prostate cancer. But it can be just as deadly.
The good news is that by adopting sun-safe practices you can cut your risk of skin cancer and melanoma. The better news? It’s not even hard. Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide is all you really need to remember. Sunscreen use is paramount, as wearing a hat, sunglasses and protective clothing and seeking shade wherever you can find it. I also advocate for yearly professional skin checks at a minimum and for self-checks even more often than that.
Keep reading for three melanoma myths you should stop believing today.
Myth 1: Sunscreen Is Just for Beach Days
Most of the sun damage we accumulate over our lifetimes comes from incidental exposure, i.e. the bits of sun we get popping out for lunch, walking to work and driving to footy practice, not from long days at the beach. So if you’re not yet in the habit of wearing SPF on the regular, there’s no better time to start than right now.
The Cancer Council recommends that sunscreen is worn every day on days the UV Index is forecast to reach 3 or above. (That’s most days for much of the country - including the cooler months. Check the BoM for info on where you live.) When the UV level is below 3, sun protection is still recommended if you work outdoors, will be near reflective surfaces (like snow or water) or expect to be outside for extended periods of time.
Some people like using apps to check the UV Index every morning but if you don’t think you’ll remember, incorporate an SPF for face and a body sunscreen into your daily routine and you won’t ever have to worry about it. Stash a bottle or two in your handbag or car for reapplication and you’ll never be caught without.
Myth 2: Sunscreen Is Horrible to Use
While it’s true that the sunscreens and SPF moisturisers of years past were unpleasant to use, things have come a long way. Now there are incredible formulas on the market that tick all the boxes - high protection, no white cast, non-greasy, won’t dry skin out, don’t pill on top of skincare and do play well with makeup. They say the best sunscreen for your face is one you’ll wear every day so find a favourite and apply it generously.
There are dozens of options available, including sunscreens for dry skin, sunscreens for sensitive skin, sunscreens for oily and acne-prone skin, and even those with added anti-ageing beauty benefits. (Important reminder: You need at least half a teaspoon on your face to achieve the SPF rating stated on the bottle.)
Myth 3: It’s Possible to Tan Safely
It baffles me that there are still people out there who believe that their skin has a magical capacity to protect itself against the fiery ball in the sky all alone. Some of these people say that they can ‘tan safely’ by doing it slowly and over time. Let me remind you that there is no such thing as a safe suntan. A suntan is actually proof that sun damage has occurred - it’s what happens when your skin produces more melanin in response to being fried in the sun. It’s quite literally a response to DNA damage. Also? A suntan is only estimated to provide SPF3 or thereabouts, depending on your skin type. That’s not much. Don’t be sun-silly - use SPF.
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