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The “healthy glow” of a sun tan is anything but

It’s clear that people across the country continue to have unhealthy love of sun tanning – which causes premature ageing, irreparable skin damage, changes to DNA and even death from skin cancer.

Well, it’s that time of year again. Another blazing hot Australian summer beckons us. We can see it now, the spread of towels on the beach and in the parks, the women in their bikinis, stomachs turned towards the sun. The hats over their faces perhaps to shield from the peeling, sunburnt aesthetic and yet – how ironic that so many people will protect their face but not the rest of their precious body?

Despite gains in culture to normalise sun safety, we still see beaches filled with people sun tanning, and social media platforms resurfacing the notion that sun tanning is glamorous and aspirational. It’s clear that people across the country continue to have unhealthy views on a suntan – which, when all’s said and done, causes premature ageing, irreversible skin damage (leathery wrinkled look in your 30s, anyone?), changes to DNA and even death from skin cancer. 

From a health perspective, a big concern has long been the link between sun tanning and skin cancer. Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world, and according to Cancer Council, skin cancer causes more deaths than transport accidents every year in Australia. 

It might surprise you…

Cancer Council says melanoma is one of the most common cancers diagnosed in young Australians aged 15-29 years, accounting for 15% of all cancers in this age bracket. 

It is estimated that more than 18,200 people were diagnosed with melanoma in 2023 – and at least 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. 

Yes, you read that right.

Tracking the history of sun tanning

Australia’s obsession with sun tanning is nothing new, yet the messaging of what it represents and why young people should engage, has evolved over time. If we cast our minds back to the 1980s when the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide’ campaign began, media and advertising often perpetuated the idea of the blonde, tall, thin, sun-tanned woman as the pinnacle of health and beauty. 

“Elle Macpherson in the 80s – a blonde woman who’s sun-tanned,” is how pharmaceutical scientist and content creator Hannah English describes the aesthetic that was presented to impressionable young women. It’s changing, but it still exists. 

For English, she believes Australia’s fascination with sun tanning not only stems from the promotion of a certain aesthetic like this, but also how the rest of the world has viewed us as a country.

“We have this global image of having an outdoor, beach lifestyle,” English tells Missing Perspectives

With the rise of body positivity and natural beauty efforts, it’s time this extended to sun tanning - one of the most dangerous, self-defeating beauty trends of them all.

So, why do we sun tan?

This ‘peer pressure’ that we’re seeing is indicative of how sun tanning culture has changed over time. It’s not necessarily just media and marketing that’s influencing people’s tendencies to sun tan in the sun, but even the opinions of those around us suggesting that a sun tan is simply a “healthy” glow. 

English recalls her own school days, where “other kids’ parents would be like, ‘You look sick, you need to get a tan. You’re a ghost.” 

When we read some of the concerning statistics around skin cancer, it begs the question; is a sun-kissed glow truly worth the risk? English says we don’t have to avoid outdoor gatherings or a day at the beach, but rather be aware of how the sun impacts our skin, and then make choices to be more sun-safe when we do go outside.  

The result: healthier, younger looking skin in the short-term.  In the long-term, it could help avoid a cancer diagnosis in a country where skin cancer is the most common, but also the most preventable cancer.  No beauty trend is worth dying for, period. 

Research has found that sun tanning is a photoprotective response to UV-induced DNA damage, resulting in pigmentation darkening due to increased melanin in the epidermis. As research indicates, “when skin is over-exposed to UV radiation, more melanin is produced, thereby darkening the skin. A tan is a response to excessive UV exposure, and is therefore a sign that UV damage has occurred.” 

“UV radiation from the sun, is strong enough to put a kink in your DNA so it directly hits the DNA in your cells and warps it,” says English. “Your cells freak out, and they try to put a little umbrella of melanin to cover the DNA to protect it. And that's what a tan is.  Not exactly cute and sexy.” 

Any extended amount of time in the sun can increase the risk of developing skin cancer, and English advises that you “can lay out in the shade or lay out with some covered-up UV-protected clothing and a hat”. 

“You can still enjoy the warmth without putting yourself at risk. It's not worth it,” adds English.

A comprehensive study of cancer prevention in Australia estimated that, in 2010, more than 1700 cases of melanoma and 14,190 squamous cell carcinomas (a common non-melanoma skin cancer) were prevented by long-term sunscreen use. It’s also been found that sunscreen use is also protective against premature skin ageing due to sun exposure – such as wrinkles and skin discolouration. 

Young people are also influenced by pro-sun tanning content on social media platforms. A search for ‘sun tanning’ on TikTok shows a series of videos from different users, demonstrating their outdoor ‘sun tanning routines’. In December 2022, TikTok Australia launched its ‘Tanning. That's Cooked' campaign to challenge the norms around sun tanning, and it has also banned sponsored videos of sun tanning

“If we see something repeated often, we tend to believe it's the norm, even if you haven’t interrogated that as a fact,” says English of the potential impact social media posts can have on young people’s tendencies to tan in the sun. 

How to get glow wise

On the flip side, social media can also help promote a healthier message about sun safety and skin protection. She encourages people to use their social media to have an open conversation about the sun, and remind others that by protecting themselves against sun-related skin damage, they can have skin that ages well and retains its real glow. 

“Here in the beauty corner of it [social media], you'll see people using sunscreen all the time.  I think it's important that if you have a platform, do what you can,” she says. “If you're talking about the health of skin, you need to talk about sunscreen and other forms of sun protection beyond just our face.” 

So let’s do our bit here at Missing Perspectives as young women, enjoying summer and say this loud and clear: Sun safety is sexy. Sunscreen is one line of your defence, along with other forms of sun protection mentioned above. Looking after your skin is cool. 

And if you don’t, what the hell are you doing?

Published in partnership with The Australian Government and Cancer Council.