Why going in the surf makes you six times more likely to get melanoma

Surfers, swimmers and stand-up paddle boarders are getting melanoma at six times the rate of the general population, according to new research suggesting the general “slip, slop, slap” skin cancer warnings are not enough for many Queenslanders.

Nov 30, 2020, updated Nov 30, 2020
University of Queensland researchers believe "perfect" skin can still conceal melanomas. (Photo:ABC)

University of Queensland researchers believe "perfect" skin can still conceal melanomas. (Photo:ABC)

The Australian-first study from the Southern Cross University is the first to show how much bigger the risk of skin cancer is for regular ocean users than for occasional beach-goers.

The study shows that some of the world’s top-ranked surfers who live locally are among the skin cancer sufferers, putting elevated risk of melanoma as an “occupational hazard” of spending a lifetime on the world’s best surf breaks and beaches.

The surfers were among 182 ocean users from the Gold Coast and the NSW North Coast who volunteered for skin checks as part of the project.

As well as melanomas, the study also found the group presented with significantly higher rates, compared to other Australians, of other skin cancers including non-melanoma basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

It found more than two in five of the participants were identified as having pre-malignant or malignant skin cancers.

Project leader Dr Mike Climstein, Associate Professor in Clinical Exercise Physiology at Southern Cross University, said the results were startling and showed regular ocean users were at very high risk due to dangerous levels of UV exposure and inadequate sun protection.

“Our findings, with regard to melanoma alone, were basically six-fold the Australian average and that’s concerning and yet the majority of our participants were using sun protection,” Climstein said.

He said the coronavirus-induced migration from southern states including Victoria and NSW to areas such as the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast meant more people may be at risk if they took up the Queensland coastal lifestyle without being aware of the health dangers.

“If you’re down in Sydney or Melbourne you’re going to have wetties on, you’re going to be covered except for your hands and face,” he said.

“We’re hoping one thing through this study is awareness, that up here you have to use sun protection. Just because it’s warm, you don’t only go out in boardies without a rashie or a hat.

“But when the surf is on, it’s on, and they don’t always think of that.”

Climstein said cumulative sun damage and skin cancer was an occupational risk for surfers and other regular ocean users, with targeted protective measures required for this group who could be in the ocean as much as 33 hours a week.

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“You know the ‘slip, slop, slap,’ that’s great for the general Australian population, but nothing has ever targeted swimmers, surfers, stand up paddle boarders, and they’re at increased risk,” he said.

“A lot of beach-goers go on the weekend, but our surfers were getting on average 330 hours of surf exposure a year and that includes peak UV exposure. Swimmers were about the same at 226 hours and paddleboarders a little less at 175 hours.

“Now those are means. We had some surfers who were doing 1300 hours a year or swimmers doing 1700 hours a year.”

Climstein said the majority of the melanomas detected in the study were found on participants’ scalp, nose, face and back.

He said regular ocean users needed increased protection, but so did all beach-goers who enjoyed the surf breaks and oceans that were a major drawcard of the Queensland lifestyle.

“With summer just around the corner we hope it encourages people to be more mindful of the risks of skin cancer when outdoors, and consider getting a total body skin check,” he said.

The study will now enter Phase 2 to detect melanomas much earlier for people who are regular ocean users. The university will boost the skin checks with cutting-edge total body photography, and is aiming to attract industry support to purchase a machine that uses artificial intelligence to detect skin changes.

SCU Adjunct Associate Professor Michael Stapelberg, a specialist general practitioner with a focus on skin cancer and dermatology who has been performing the skin checks, said the computer-aided total body photography would improve sensitivity in the early detection of skin cancer.

“Hopefully our study will make ocean users more aware and take appropriate precautions, due to their increased risk of skin cancer,” Stepelberg said.

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