Teenagers tan today, pay tomorrow

Teenagers tan today, pay tomorrow

Australians aged 18 to 40 who are regular users of sunscreen in childhood reduce their risk of developing melanoma by 40 per cent compared with those who rarely use sunscreen.

Summer may be a week away but skin cancer is a year-round issue in Australia, where lifestyle and environment put us at greater risk of excess exposure to the sun. About two out of every three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer — usually non-melanoma skin cancer — by the time they are 70. Melanoma skin cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer, with about 14,000 new cases every year, leaving about 1900 people dead. Take this as your annual reminder of the need to slip on clothing, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on sunglasses.

Many teenagers still believe a tan is a good thing. The Cancer Council’s National Sun Protection Survey has found that 38 per cent of teens like to get a tan, with 43 per cent of girls saying they prefer to be tanned. Survey results were released ahead of National Skin Cancer Action Week, which ends tomorrow.

“Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and these results show that the messages about the dangers of too much UV exposure are not getting through to our teenagers,” Cancer Council chief executive Sanchia Aranda says. “We know that teens are influenced by their friends and 62 per cent of teens saying they believe their friends think a tan is a good thing (suggests that) many teens may be seeking a tan this summer.”

Australasian College of Dermatologists president Andrew Miller reminds young people that tanning is a sign that they have been exposed to enough UV radiation to damage their skin. Australians aged 18 to 40 who are regular users of sunscreen in childhood reduce their risk of developing melanoma by 40 per cent compared with those who rarely use sunscreen. That finding, from University of Sydney researchers, was published in JAMA Dermatology earlier this year.

Yet even if people recognise the importance of sunscreen, they may underestimate when it is required. Research from the Australian National University has demonstrated it is still possible to get sunburnt when the UV index is less than three. “For example, if you are outdoors for a few hours on a winter’s day playing golf, it is easy to exceed the dose of UV radiation that will cause a sunburn,” ANU’s Robyn Lucas says. “Most days of the year, even as far south as Melbourne, it will be possible to get a sunburn if you stay outside most of the day. People have to start thinking not just about the UV index but also how long they are outdoors.”

A routine skin check will help identify any potential areas of concern and ensure any cancers are diagnosed earlier, in the event that prevention strategies have failed to work. At all ages, and compounded across time, excess exposure to the sun is the key risk factor for skin cancer, and early diagnosis gives doctors more time and options for treatment.

“Early diagnosis is key to successful treatment,” Australasian College of Dermatologists president-elect David Francis says. “Dermatologists unfortunately see a huge number of patients with some form of skin cancer. Removing the primary melanoma at the origin will resolve 90 per cent of cases of the disease, which makes early detection and diagnosis absolutely crucial.”

Scientists from Edith Cowan University announced this year that they had developed the world’s first blood test for melanoma, but it will not replace skin checks — at this stage the blood test comes with so many false positives and false negatives that a skin check still would be needed for assurance.

A compound extracted from the funnel-web spider may present a particularly Australian way to combat melanoma. A study led by researchers from Queensland’s QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, and also involving the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, found the spider-derived peptide showed promise. “When we tested the Australian spider peptide on human melanoma cells in the laboratory, it killed the majority of them,” researcher Maria Ikonomopoulou says. The peptide also appeared to work on Tasmanian devil facial tumours, although more research and development will be required to prove its clinical and commercial potential.

Sean Parnell

Health Editor

Sean Parnell is Health Editor and FOI Editor at The Australian and was a political reporter for 10 years. Sean is a member of the Open Government Partnership Media Council, has been interviewed for various TV a… Read more