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Are Aussies becoming sun-slackers?

November 24, 2016

Are Aussies becoming sun-slackers?

As a dermatologist working in Australia, skin cancer is something I think, see and talk about every day. I see the impact it has on too many Australian lives first hand and it's always front of mind.

So it was concerning to hear the results of Cancer Council's latest National Sun Protection Survey this week and learn that many Australians are getting complacent about sun protection.

Skin cancer is a real and serious threat in Australia - two in three of us will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70, and sadly over 2000 Australians die from skin cancer each year. It's our nation's most common, yet largely preventable cancer.

Sid the Seagull first walked onto TV screens in the 1980s and Australians have been reminded about the importance of "slapping on a hat" for more than 30 years. Yet the latest data from Cancer Council shows that fewer Australians are using a hat to protect themselves when out and about on summer weekends. It seems we have become slip, slop, slackers.

Hat use on weekends has dropped from 48% in 2003 to 44% in the latest survey - this might not sound like a lot, but it equates to 640,000 fewer Australians wearing a hat on summer weekends than in 2003. In total that's 10.6 million hatless Australians in the weekend summer sun.

Even those who are wearing a hat aren't getting the amount of protection they need, with most wearing a baseball cap or visor - which is better than nothing  - but leaves their ears and neck exposed.

As someone who treats skin cancers, this is a real concern. A broad brim hat is one of the most simple ways Australians can protect themselves in the sun.

The latest Cancer Council survey also showed that use of protective clothing has also declined and there was no improvement in adult's use of shade to protect themselves.

There was some good news - Australians are slopping on more sunscreen, sliding on sunglasses and more of us are using a combination of sun protection measures, which is fantastic. But still only one in five of us use three or more types of sun protection.

Australians need to be cautious about being over-reliant on sunscreen and sunnies alone. Sunscreens have come a long way in recent years, but no sunscreen is a suit of armour and it should be used in combination with other sun protection methods.

With hat use declining, it's no surprise that the research also revealed that the face, head, nose or ears are among the most common places on the body that Australian are getting sunburnt. The arms and hands and shoulders and neck were also reported as often receiving sunburn - a sign that we are neglecting to cover up.

Let's be clear - sunburn is a sign of acute UV damage and indicates that you have increased your risk of developing skin cancer. Skin cancers on the face, head, nose and ears are particularly concerning because they can arise quickly and be difficult to treat - treatment often at the very least leaves visible scarring. My patients usually think it's just a case of cutting it out but it's not always that simple. Sadly, we don't always get skin cancers in time.

This National Skin Cancer Action Week the message is simple: slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, slop on SPF 30+ or higher sunscreen, slide on sunnies and seek shade whenever UV levels are 3 or above. Being SunSmart isn't about changing your lifestyle, it's about adapting your behaviour to reduce your skin cancer risk.

And don't forget to keep a close eye on your skin - if you notice any changes, visit your GP.

Skin cancer is a serious national health concern, however, by following a few simple steps, Australians can reduce their risk of skin cancer and lessen its impact - we can't afford to get slack about sun protection.