Australia has a confluence of factors that put the population at prime risk for developing skin cancer. According to Cancer Council Australia, there are more than 750,000 people treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers in Australia each year and there were approximately 13,283 new cases of melanoma skin cancer diagnosed in 2016 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare). Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma skin cancer in the world, only outpaced by New Zealand this year according to new research published by the Journal of Investigative Dermatology. So why is skin cancer so common in Australia?
Leading the way in public health campaigns, the most famous of which is Slip! Slop! Slap!, Australia has made concerted efforts to educate the public. Their campaigns outline the symptoms of skin cancer and the essential steps for prevention, encouraging people to take their health into their own hands and stop skin cancer before it has a chance to form or spread. Many researchers attribute Australia’s declining skin cancer incidence rates to the success of these campaigns. But why are skin cancer rates so high in the first place?
Why skin cancer is so common: The perfect storm
Australia has a confluence of factors that put the population at prime risk for developing skin cancer:
1. Location: Not only does Australia have a large number of sunny days per year, 246 days of sunshine on average. It is also located near the Antarctic ozone hole, which is a severe thinning of the ozone layer each spring. This means more damaging UV rays come through the atmosphere, creating a high UV Index and causing harm to unprotected skin.
2. Lifestyle: Many people in Australia also enjoy active, outdoor lifestyles. Outdoor sports and activities such as water sports, gardening and beach days are common. Although it may be on the decline, there is also a common cultural preference for tanned skin. Many people think that they look better with a “healthy tan” and this encourages harmful tanning practices within the population.
3. Skin type: Another reason that explains why skin cancer rates are so high in Australia is the large proportion of fair-skinned people living in the region. While Aboriginal Australians rarely develop skin cancers, the descendants of British and European colonists who came to Australia in the late 18th century are living in an environment to which their skin is not adapted. Light skin contains less melanin, our body’s natural protection from UV radiation. This means that these skin types are much more vulnerable to developing skin cancer.