New study shows that regular sunscreen use could cut Australian melanoma rates by a third

1 February 2018

We all know the benefits of using sunscreen but a recent study by Brisbane's QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute shows just how beneficial applying sunscreen can be.

The study, How many melanomas might be prevented if more people applied sunscreen regularly?, published in The British Journal Of Dermatology, was led by the head of QIMR Berghofer's Cancer Control Group, Professor David Whiteman. The study found that if all Australians diligently used sunscreen every day, the incidence of melanoma could be slashed by up to 34% by 2031. That would result in more than 28,000 fewer people would be diagnosed with melanoma.

Professor Whiteman’s team of researchers modelled a range of hypothetical scenarios to work out the potential impact sunscreen could have on reducing melanoma cases. They included a "best case" example of every Australian using sunscreen daily, as well as mandatory sunscreen use for people aged 45 to 65 and all school children.

“Living in Queensland, just walking out to your car in the morning, driving to work, zipping out at lunch to do an errand, that amount of sun exposure that you get in one day, adds up to quite a lot of damage to your skin,” Professor Whiteman said.

“When you do that for 365 days of the year, if you had sunscreen on your exposed skin, you would reduce your risk of melanoma. The daily use of sunscreen is to protect against those incidental, everyday exposures that most of us under-appreciate and which add up over time.”

Recent studies had found that only about 35% of Australian women and 21% of men were regular sunscreen users. Ideally, people should apply daily, and reapply sunscreen every four hours.

Professor Whiteman conceded that the 34% reduction was unlikely to ever be achieved, but highlighted what could be possible if people were more diligent about sun safety. “If the whole population used sunscreen daily, then over the next 20 years, we would reduce melanoma incidence by about 34%,” he said. 

“That’s the best case scenario. We’ll probably never get there. But if we increased the numbers of Australians using sunscreen daily by 5 per cent a year over the next 10 years, we would see melanoma rates falling by about 10 per cent by 2031 based on the modelling we’ve done. When you think of the pain and suffering that goes into each case of melanoma, you’re preventing a great deal of suffering.”

Professor Whiteman said that people in Queensland should be particularly vigilant about using sunscreen all year round, even in winter. “The ultraviolet levels in most of Queensland in the middle of the day are still pretty high in winter,” he said. “Data has shown that Queenslanders actually get as many sunburn episodes in winter as they do in summer. Queenslanders tend to be even more outdoorsy in the winter time.”

Australia already has the highest rates of skin cancer worldwide, and people living in Queensland have the highest rate of melanoma. In particular, men over the age of 55 and living in Queensland have the highest risk of developing skin cancer, according to a 2017 study also by Professor Whiteman’s team, The incidence and multiplicity rates of keratinocyte cancers in Australia, published in The Medical Journal of Australia.

Professor Whiteman said cancer prevention initiatives took decades to show their full effect, but Australia was already seeing the benefits of the sun smart campaigns that started in the 1980s. Older Australians are now potentially the most likely to benefit from regular use of sunscreen.

"When we look at melanoma rates in different age groups of the population, we're starting to see declines in melanoma rates in people under the age of 40," he said. "The burden of melanoma is highest in the older population, so the most effective sunscreen intervention in the short term to reduce melanoma was within that population."

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