How schools are turning the tide of skin cancer

Posted 6 Jan 2020.

SunSmart school children

Good news - the tide of melanoma rates is turning, with rates in Australians under 40 dropping and a significant decline in the number of young people seeking a sun tan.

Some readers may remember the days of lying on the beach in summer covered in oil - all for the sake of a tan. Thankfully, over the last four decades attitudes and behaviours around sun protection have improved and this is no longer the norm.

Skin cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, with the vast majority of skin cancers, including melanoma, being caused by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR). Despite this, around 2 in 3 Australians will be diagnosed with a skin cancer in their lifetime and almost 2,000 people will lose their lives to skin cancer each year.

The beginning

It all started in 1981 with the iconic Slip-Slop-Slap campaign. Now extended to include Seek shade and Slide on sunglasses, the campaign has become a feature of our Australian summers.

Slip Slip Slap logo

From the very beginning, there has been a strong focus on establishing healthy sun behaviours in young people. Understanding that children are particularly vulnerable to UVR led us to develop the SunSmart Schools and Early Childhood programs, launching in Western Australia 21 years ago. Today, over 2 million Australian children across the country are enrolled in schools that are SunSmart members, thus protected against the sun in the playground.

"The SunSmart schools and early childhood program has led to massive behaviour change across the country and we've shown that this leads to reduced cancer rates later in life."

- Heather Walker, Chair of the National Skin Cancer Committee, Cancer Council Australia

Grounded in evidence

Importantly, evidence underpins all of Cancer Council's policy and program development. Cancer Council data collected over the last 15 years shows sun protection practices have improved in WA schools. For example, in 2005, only 53% of primary schools required sun protective hats to be worn. Now, that figure is around 84% and growing. There has also been an increase in sunscreen use in schools and uniforms have improved with nearly all schools having shirts with collars.

In addition, the rates of young people preferring a suntan have dropped from 60% to 38%, and as the SunSmart generation grows older, we're expecting to see the drop in cancer rates continue.

Looking to the future

But there is still work to be done - too many Australians are diagnosed with skin cancer every year. It is important that Australians don't become complacent about sun protection. For schools, this means remembering that even small changes to sun protection practices have the potential to make a substantial positive impact on long-term health outcomes.

Cancer Council continues to build upon the success of our SunSmart programs so all Australians are empowered to protect themselves from the harmful effects of the sun.

Found in:  News - 2020 | View all news