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New data from a national Cancer Council poll revealed that two in five Australians desire a suntan. We know the rays that give sun-seeking Aussies tanned skin over the summer months are the same rays that cause the majority of skin cancers, with two in three Australians developing some form of skin cancer before they’re 70. This is clearly problematic, and there is no shortage of information available in Australia about UV radiation and skin cancer.

So, for those suntanning Aussies, is there a safer alternative? Let’s look at the facts.

UV and Suntanning

Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world and the main cause is overexposure to UV radiation from sunlight.

UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum emitted from the sun and is responsible for causing skin damage, premature ageing, and skin cancer. A UV level of three and above is strong enough to damage the DNA within our skin cells, increasing the risk of those cells becoming cancerous. This is concerning considering in South Australia, UV averages three and above for most of the year (beginning of August to end of April) and reaches extreme levels (11+) over the summer months.

There are two types of UV radiation that enters the earth’s atmosphere – UVA and UVB. Both cause skin damage and DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer. UVA is primarily responsible for ageing of the skin and UVB is primarily responsible for sunburn. Tanning in the sun may give you the tanned look you are after – temporarily, but in the longer term you are exposing your skin to premature aging, wrinkles, blotches, sun spots AND increasing your risk of skin cancer.

Some people assume that developing a suntan protects the skin from burning, and therefore against skin cancer. Little do they know; a tan develops once skin damage has already occurred. Damage to skin cells triggers the production of more melanin; a pigmented chemical which darkens the skin. This means that by the time you have developed a tan, the skin is already damaged, and your risk of skin cancer has increased.

So, with the implications of suntanning in mind, what are the alternatives?

Fake Tanning

Cancer Council does not promote the perception that tanned skin is more desirable than pale skin and you’re encouraged to embrace your natural skin tone. However, if you are interested in tanning your skin, using a topical fake tanning product is safer than tanning in the sun or using a solarium.

There are a wide range of fake tanning products available on the market. Tanning lotions, sprays, creams, mousses and combined moisturiser and fake tan products contain dihydroxyacetone (DHA), a chemical or vegetable dye that temporarily stains the skin, giving the appearance of a tan. The dye interacts and binds with the dead skin cells located in the upper layer of the skin. The colour comes off when the dead skin cells flake off, which is normally around one week after application.

DHA is considered safe for topical application on the skin, and there is no evidence to say it causes skin cancer. However, it is important to take care around the eyes, lips, mucous membranes (inside the nose and mouth) when applying, and ensure you are not inhaling the product if using a spray, as there is limited research on the safety of DHA exposure to these areas of the body.

Fake tan products usually contain three to five per cent DHA (professional products can range up to 15 per cent) with lower concentrations producing a light tan and higher concentrations resulting in a darker colour. Some brands may include a sunscreen, however the sun protection factor (SPF) lasts for only a few hours after application – not for the length of time that the ‘tan’ remains.

It is important to remember that having darker skin from a fake tan will not protect you from skin cancer, skin damage or premature aging from UV. To protect the skin from UV damage, it is still important to apply sunscreen on top of developed fake tan and use a combination of other sun protection measures when outdoors.


It is true, there is no such thing as a healthy suntan, but if you are among the two in five people wanting a suntan this summer, using a fake tanning product is the safer option to achieve the look instead.

Remember though, a fake tan won’t protect you from skin damage. Use a combination of sun protection measures to protect your skin, not just from the aging effects of UV, but more importantly, from skin cancer.

Cancer Council recommends applying SPF 30 or higher sunscreen 20 minutes before going outdoors and reapplying every two hours, wearing sun protective clothing, hats, sunglasses, and seeking shade to protect your skin from skin cancer.

To find out more about protecting your skin visit:

Cancer Council SA Charlie Sheridan Community Education Project Officer

Charlie Sheridan
Community Education Project Officer

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