NO hat, no play; it’s the age-old rule that has found its way into all Australian classrooms. Yet, with more than 2000 deaths from skin cancer across the country each year, schools must take additional measures to protect students from the sun’s harsh UV rays. All images: Cancer Council Australia.
It is widely known sun safety awareness at school plays an important role in preventing exposure and reducing the risk of skin cancers later in life.
Research shows children have more delicate skin that can burn easily, and UV damage accumulated during childhood and adolescence is strongly associated with an increased risk of skin cancer in adulthood. Australia’s schools are therefore in the driving seat to teach children sun smart strategies they can carry throughout their school years and beyond.
According to Cancer Council Australia Skin Cancer Committee chair Heather Walker, sun protection is a joint responsibility between schools, students and their families, with schools having a duty of care to protect children from the sun whenever UV levels are three or above.
“UV exposure and damage is cumulative and can’t always be seen,” Ms Walker said.
“Sunburn is a definite sign of too much UV reaching the skin.
“If schools are organising outdoor events or activities (on or off site), it’s important to ensure UV risk reduction is on the agenda.
“This includes the provision of shade, ensuring appropriate clothing and hats are worn, sunscreen application is included and possibly sunglasses.”
Recent stats show two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time they are 70, while melanoma—the most deadly type of skin cancer—is Australia’s third most common cancer, with more than 12,000 people diagnosed each year.
An additional 750,000 Australians were also treated for non-melanoma skin cancers each year, which according to a report from the 45 and Up Study led by the University of Sydney and Cancer Council NSW, was most often caused by sun exposure during childhood.
However, numbers were slowly improving; the Cancer Council’s hallmark ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ campaign, introduced 37 years ago, is believed to have played a large part in driving the improvement.
“The good news is that melanoma rates in Australians aged under 40 are dropping – showing that sun protection campaigns are working,” Ms Walker said.
“The culture of schools has certainly changed over the decades with more sun safe behaviours being implemented.
“We all know the importance of protecting our skin, however there is still lots of room for improvement, with one in eight Australian adults still getting sunburnt each summer.”
Ms Walker said while the melanoma drop under 40 was positive news, it was dampened by the fact skin cancer rates were on the rise.
The increase was largely attributed to the baby-boomer generation, who while growing up were unaware of the risks of UV radiation.
Over the last few decades, sun safety measures have ramped up, and now extend beyond the ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ slogan to five S’s including; slip on sun protective clothing, slop on SPF30 sunscreen, slap on a broad brimmed hat, seek shade, and slide on wrap-around sunglasses.
A recent survey showed Victorian primary schools were leading the way across most of these areas, but needed more support to increase sunscreen in the classroom.
The survey found sunscreen availability dropped from 54 per cent of Victorian schools in 2011 to 34 per cent in 2016.
Ms Walker said sunscreen continued to be a challenge for some schools, and it was important to have support from families to ensure adequate supply was available.
“SunSmart recommends adding sunscreen to the school booklist each year so that each student brings and applies their own sunscreen – one that their family has supplied and suits their skin,” she said.
Ms Walker said it was also vital for teachers to remember how important role modelling SunSmart behaviour was, particularly in high schools, as well as creating a safe space for students to roam.
“Shade, either natural or built, is a great way to help reduce UV exposure while encouraging outdoor activities,” she said.
“UV reaches us directly and can also be scattered and reflected off different surfaces.
“Dark coloured, rough surfaces such as soil, tanbark and grass reflect less UV than smooth light coloured surfaces such as concrete, light brick walls and glass.”
Schools were also encouraged to see what shade was currently available and how improvements could be made, for example, painting murals on light coloured walls, changing ground surfacing, planting more trees and shrubs, and moving activities away from highly reflective surfaces.
“Schools are encouraged to look at the entire outdoor area and examine where shade falls at different times of the day,” she said.
“For example an out-of-bounds area may get great shade during the middle of the day and with some modifications could become a great spot for students to utilise.
“SunSmart have an online shade audit tool to help schools determine which areas have a greater priority for shade.”
SunSmart also offered support in developing and reviewing a school’s sun protection policy, online or face-to-face staff training, a free SunSmart app and widget, and a range of resources, including online learning modules, songs, podcasts, lesson ideas, animations, PDF posters and more.
“UV radiation can’t be seen or felt so it can sometimes be difficult to remember when sun protection is needed,” Ms Walker said.
“It’s important not to rely on weather conditions.”
Download the free SunSmart app at cancer.org.au/sunsmartapp to set up daily sun protection alerts.