FOR AS LONG AS I CAN remember, I’ve been making excuses to get myself out into the sun. At school, I was an expert at forging sick notes to go hang by the water with my girlfriend, or closing up the bakery I worked at half an hour early so that I could hit the beach. Later on, when I worked in advertising, there were often long stretches of time spent waiting for client feedback. My work friends and I became experts at logging fake meetings in those summers, so that we could head outside. A meeting marked ‘Doctor’s Appointment’ or ‘Religious Holiday’ was basically code for ‘I’m Busy… Working On My Suntan’; the difference between spending another hour mindlessly trawling “Brown Cardigan” or getting ourselves OOO and to the nearest beach. When people inquire as to how I have such a strong tan year-round, I like to tell them I am an Epicurean. Life is short so enjoy the small pleasures, especially when one can answer emails from the sand these days.
I was lucky enough to grow up in Sydney by the beach with a faux-Mediterranean complexion (my lineage is mostly Austrian, somewhat Hungarian) that almost always went a few hues darker before thinking about going sizzling red. As a kid I remember spending entire weekends frolicking about with no hat (didn’t want to damage the hair), cheap and useless sunglasses (they looked cool) and maybe one layer of sunscreen that wasn’t yet water-resistant enough to compete with hours spent in the salty ocean. Looking back on that attitude now makes me feel kind of foolish.
Like most Australian millennials, much of my school life happened under the long shadow of slogans like Slip, Slop, Slap and No Hat, No Play. But these always seemed more like friendly guidelines than rules. But then came the shock campaigns, where we started to see skin cancer represented on our screens for the first time. This was when we learned Australia has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world–and we began our quest to turn those stats around. Awareness went up, mortality went down. So prevalent were these warnings, that when I turned twelve, Baz Luhrmann even wrote a weird song about it.
These days, I hardly recognise that teenage kid who would chuck a sickie to fry himself on a rock. Now, I go out at 9AM in the summer to walk my child to daycare and if I’m not appropriately covered and plastered in sunblock, I’m absolutely sizzled before I even get back home. So what’s the deal? Is my skin paying the price for past transgressions? Is the hole in the ozone (apparently not actually a thing) getting stronger? Are we all slowly being burnt alive by climate change, and is it time to invest in an all-over body rash vest so that we can safely step outside?
According to the Cancer Council, we’ve still got a long way to go before skin cancer rates fall to an acceptable level. Though it seems the younger set is being far less cavalier with that angry orange orb, despite consistent national messaging, 2000 of us are still dying each year from skin cancer. Two in three of us will be diagnosed with it in some form by the time we’re 70–and I’m already halfway there. Despite being avoidable and curable, skin cancer treatments cost us well over $1 billion a year. You’re also statistically more likely to get it if you’re a man. That being said, we are getting better when it comes to skincare in general, with UV protection an essential ingredient included in most of the creams and serums that are becoming a big business for young guys today.
As if to prove this point, I hit up two close friends and three professional strangers for comment on this subject, all of whom are dermatologists. Turns out, they are all so run off their feet at this time of year that none of them have time to talk to me. Down the road from me at my local beach, there’s a van doing pop-up skin checks. I ask the nice lady there who inspects my freckles if the sun is getting hotter or sunscreen is getting weaker. She didn’t refute the former, but also took the opportunity to point out my poor ‘slopping’ technique. ‘Look love,’ she says kindly, nodding towards the gaps in coverage on my back. ‘You’re just not doing it right.’
It’s common knowledge that Australian summers in particular are trending hotter. More UV exposure at higher rates for increasingly longer periods of time is a good way to wind up with a nasty surprise when you arrive at any of those dermatologists who wouldn’t answer my calls. That’s even worse if you do what I used to do and head out in the early afternoon when it’s hottest. You know, like that time of day when we usually hold all our major music festivals and sporting events.
In a sign of the times, those three S’s I grew up with have now grown to five (‘Seek Shade’ and ‘Slide on Sunnies’.) Maybe when my child is old enough to cut school and hang out at the beach with her crush, there might even be some more., like ‘Sandals’ because sand year round is now so hot it damages your feet, or ‘Seriously’, as in ‘Seriously, go inside or you’ll die.’ Or, we might just get so good at covering ourselves up that suntans will be to her generation what solariums and tanning oil are to mine: unsafe and outdated.
When I was at uni, the government ran ads that told us there was nothing healthy about a suntan. At the time, I found it hilarious, wowser messaging made by lily-white narcs who hated fun and evidently spent little time outside. They were onto something. I don’t even need fake meetings to go crisp anymore, I just need to get a coffee in the morning without a hat on. Maybe I just should’ve listened more closely to Baz’s whimsically silly song:
“If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it.”