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Why a spray tan is not enough to avoid skin cancer

Australians tend to love the heat. Whether it’s lying on the beach, by a pool, or standing for hours on end in a cricket field, we Aussies love to bask under the warm glow of the sun. Unfortunately, for those of us who frequently like to catch some rays, we also know this favoured pastime can come at the ultimate cost to our health – sun tanning = skin cancer.

Gone are the days of casually basting ourselves in canola or vegetable oil (yes, some of us were literally cooking ourselves back in the free-wheeling 70s and 80s). Here to stay are the 50+ different types of sunscreens and colourful sun-smart zincs to ward off those powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays. But for all the information and statistics now highlighting the undeniable links between sun exposure and skin cancer, one thing remains relatively unchanged: our love of tanning.

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure

Skin cancer is Australia’s most common cancer. Ironically, it’s also one of the most preventable. Dr Sophy Shih, from Deakin Health Economics, has spent many years analysing the evident gaps between public attitudes and behaviours versus disease prevention.

‘When it comes to skin cancer, there’s strong evidence that shows the effectiveness of prevention. Yet approximately two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70,’ she says.

Dr Shih’s research in collaboration with Cancer Council Victoria, has also uncovered some startling numbers. The findings estimate that the cost to treat the disease in Victoria’s public hospital system is close to $10 per head of the population per year. That’s more than $50 million per year and almost 30-times the current public funding of skin cancer prevention. So what’s not adding up?

‘Skin cancer is one of very few cancers where prevention programs have proven to be cost-effective, with positive returns on investment of public money,’ says Dr Shih.

‘Unfortunately sustained funding for long-term prevention is not secured. Prevention of disease takes decades to take effect. Sustained long-term investment in prevention is critical to realise the positive outcomes.’

'When it comes to skin cancer, there’s strong evidence that shows the effectiveness of prevention. Yet approximately two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70'

Dr Sophy Shih,
Deakin University

The fall of solariums

Put simply, a tan is a sign of skin damage. Any method of tanning involving UV radiation will cause harm to your skin. Yet up until their highly-publicised ban across Australia on 1 January 2015, commercial solariums were popular among the bronzed set. Contrary to the fact that UV radiation levels in a sunbed could be up to six times as strong as the midday summer sun, their use was common and widespread particularly among females aged 18 to 39.

It took almost a decade of ongoing research and campaigning, including the hard-hitting story of young Melbournian and melanoma victim Claire Oliver, to finally shut down the commercial solarium industry.

‘Skin cancer prevention campaigns and programs have definitely influenced the population’s behaviour in sun protection,’ says Dr Shih.

‘Research has shown these campaign and program activities have changed the social attitude and behaviour toward tanning and excessive UV exposure. Many studies have also reported that sunburn incidence, proportion of unprotected skin, and intentional tanning has declined over time.’

The rise of the spray tan

Seemingly deterred by 30+ years of scientific evidence and warnings from the Department of Health, many sun-loving Aussies have since adopted a sunless, non-UV alternative to achieving the perfect golden glow – the spray tan.

That coconutty, tropical-inspired smell has almost become synonymous with the social scene Down Under, all year round. But although it requires zero UV radiation or exposure to the sun, it’s those like Dr Shih who are here to remind us that a spray tan is definitely not an alternative to skin cancer prevention. Few tanning products contain adequate sun protection and will not reduce your risk of skin cancer should you find yourself sans SPF under that fierce Australian sun.

‘Skin cancer is a disease that’s still placing a huge burden on our public hospital system. Under-funding for its prevention is a common issue across Australia,’ says Dr Shih.

‘Researchers and advocates have been working extremely hard to push for sustained funding for more prevention programs, which has slipped out of the government’s focus in recent years. However, sun-related behaviours continue to be amenable to change. Further intensive campaigns are now needed to maintain previous successes’, she concludes.

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Dr Sophy Shih
Dr Sophy Shih

Senior Research Fellow, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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