Why is skin cancer so common in Australia?

Australia has a confluence of factors that put the population at risk of skin cancer. According to Cancer Council Australia, there are more than 750,000 people treated for one or more non-melanomas in Australia each year. Currently, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70. In fact, it was estimated that 15,229 new cases of melanoma alone would be diagnosed in 2019 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).

It’s well known that Australia has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world. But why is the disease so common? 

Why skin cancer is so common: the perfect storm

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. As a result, more damaging UV rays can penetrate 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 sand beach days are common. Although it may be on the decline, there is also a common cultural preference for tanned skin. Many people might 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 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.

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