Most Australians still do not know when they should put on sunscreen, despite millions of dollars spent over three decades promoting the “slip, slop, slap” sun awareness campaign, research has revealed.
The latest data from the Cancer Council Australia’s National Sun Protection Survey shows 40 per cent of respondents were confused about what weather factors caused sunburn.
Damien MacRae was confused too.
A self-described “dork” who did not go to the beach or spend time in the sun, he discovered a mole on his left ear in 2013 at the age of 38.
A biopsy revealed it was melanoma — and he has been battling the spread of the disease to other parts of his body, ever since.
“I’m not surprised. Before I had melanoma I was in blissful ignorance about the dangers of ultraviolet radiation,” he said.
“I didn’t like getting hot, so I would always avoid the sun, but I knew nothing about the UV thing.”
The Cancer Council study found nine out of 10 people did not understand that sun protection should be used when ultraviolent radiation levels were at three or above on the UV index, according to chair of the Council’s National Skin Cancer Committee, Heather Walker.
“Twenty-four per cent of Australian adults surveyed incorrectly believed that sunburn risk was related to temperature, while 23 per cent incorrectly cited conditions such as cloud cover, wind or humidity,” Ms Walker said.
“It’s important for us to reinforce the message that it’s ultraviolet radiation that is the major cause of skin cancer — and that UV can’t be seen or felt.”
The Bureau of Meteorology includes UV data in its local forecasts, and the Cancer Council provides UV alerts through its SunSmart app.
And Ms Walker said it was particularly pertinent at this time of the year.
“In Autumn, temperatures in some parts of the country are cooling, but UV levels right across Australia are still high enough to cause serious sunburn and the skin cancer that leads to cancer.”
Ms Walker said it was also important to remember sunscreen was only one way to protect against skin cancer, with sunglasses, long sleeves, seeking shade, and wearing a hat also important.
More than 14,000 new melanoma cases are diagnosed and 1,900 people die as a result of the disease each year in Australia.
Head of the cancer control group at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, Professor David Whiteman, said the study results indicated awareness had dropped away and it was time to reinvest in more education.
“The results are quite shocking and we really could be doing more in this area,” he said.
“We know that investment in these sun protection campaigns does work and there’s historical data showing that when the investment increases there’s better behaviour, better use of sun protection, better use of sunscreen, higher levels of awareness.
“Collectively we spend over a billion dollars a year treating skin cancers so it’s a huge burden on the Australian population and yet these are largely preventable cancers.
“There’s a case to be made as well that wearing sunscreen should really be part of people’s daily hygiene practice, a bit like brushing your teeth and brushing your hair, putting on sunscreen, particularly on your nose and face and ears – those sun exposed sites.”
Continuing to battle stage-four melanoma, Mr MacRae is now a vocal advocate for Australians to use sun protection.
He especially wants the introduction of a National Brolly Day, to highlight the benefits of using umbrellas to avoid UV damage.
“I think Australians are aware of the ‘slip, slop, slap’ message when they go to the beach, but don’t realise you can get sunburnt when you’re walking down the street or sitting in a park,” he said.
“That’s why I’m promoting umbrellas so when you’re walking your best bet is to have a 50-plus UV umbrella with you.”
He said while women were accepting of people using umbrellas for protecting, men still needed to get the message.
“Aussies think they are bulletproof or sun or UV proof — and they’re not,” he said.
“It’s time to man up and start using umbrellas.”