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Adolescents ignore sun-smart message

Western Australia’s long summers and relaxed beach lifestyle are often envied, but the state’s statistics on skin cancer are concerning. According to a Curtin-led study, adolescents are at particular risk as they are less likely than adults to engage in sun-protective behaviours, making them more susceptible to developing skin cancer in later life.


Professor Simone Pettigrew, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, who co-authored the paper, 'Trends in Australian adolescents’ sun-protection behaviours: implications for health campaigns'.
Professor Simone Pettigrew, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, who co-authored the paper, 'Trends in Australian adolescents’ sun-protection behaviours: implications for health campaigns'.

Professor Simone Pettigrew, School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, who co-authored the paper, ‘Trends in Australian adolescents’ sun-protection behaviours: implications for health campaigns’, said excessive exposure of the skin to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is a major cause of skin cancer, and in Australia skin cancer rates are high and rising.

“Protecting the skin from UV radiation is critical during adolescence to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer later in life, but adolescents tend to be less likely to protect themselves against the sun’s harmful effects than adults,” Professor Pettigrew said.

The research project examined changes and trends in sun-protection behaviours of 5,053 14–17 year old adolescents living in WA – a region with high levels of UV radiation.

“The risk of developing skin cancer in WA is – together with Queensland – the highest in Australia. Average UV radiation levels in WA are 11 or higher at noon during the summer months. The World Health Organization and Cancer Council recommend sun protection be used at three or higher,” Professor Pettigrew said.

The risk of developing skin cancer in WA is – together with Queensland – the highest in Australia.
The risk of developing skin cancer in WA is – together with Queensland – the highest in Australia.

Recommended protection against UV radiation includes wearing hats and covering clothing, using sunscreen, shade and wearing sunglasses.

The research noted a marked decrease in hat use by adolescents between 2001 and 2012, which possibly reflects fashion trends and may indicate that compulsory childhood sun-protection measures are rejected during adolescence.

“New approaches to encourage sun-protective behaviours are needed because although adolescents tend to be knowledgeable about sun-related health risks, this knowledge has not generally translated into appropriate changes in sun-protection behaviour,” Professor Pettigrew said.

“The results highlight the importance of understanding teens’ attitudes to sun protection and developing new methods of encouraging them to cover up.”

The research was completed in collaboration with Cancer Council Western Australia and support was provided by Healthway and the Western Australian Department of Health.

The paper  was published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health on 12 August 2016.