Growing up in Australia in the 2000s, one message was clear: stop tanning. We've all seen the "tanning is skin cells in trauma" ads, but unfortunately, 13 years since the famous campaign ran on TVs across the nation, tanning is still a mainstay in Australian culture.
Perhaps many of us are no longer naive enough to lay in the sun without wearing SPF. But the enduring cultural norm of looking as tanned as possible (especially in the height of summer) still encourages people to spend time in direct sunlight, and it's only made worse by tanning aids like oils and sprays that skirt regulations relating to the promotion of sunscreens, while still promising a tan.
These products are designed to target the next generation of tan-seekers, so it makes you wonder how far we've really come since tanning beds were banned in Australia in 2005.
"Culturally, as Australians, we get shown this "beach babe" — other countries think that's what Australians are like — and so we kind of aspire to this beauty ideal," beauty writer and pharmaceutical scientist Hannah English tells Refinery29 Australia. Our sunburnt country is known internationally for its impressive great outdoors, and with it, comes the outdated glorification of darkened skin, promising like an old wives' tale to hide signs of acne, aging and cellulite. Tan lines affirm a so-called job well done, acting as a physical reminder of just how dark the sun has turned our skin.
We know how damaging the sun can be in Australia, and yet, we still haven't heeded warnings or learnt our lesson when it comes to desiring "sunkissed" skin, despite the plethora of health risks that come with it — including sunburn, premature aging, eye damage, photosensitivity and skin cancers like melanoma.
Tan lines affirm a so-called job well done, acting as a physical reminder of just how dark the sun has turned people.
Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with more than two out of three Australians receiving a diagnosis in their lifetime, according to SunSmart. And if you're wondering how sun-smart Australians are, the truth is, the stats are alarming. According to research commissioned by TAL in 2022, 68% of Australian women have not had a professional skin check in the last 12 months and 72% agree that they should be doing more to protect themselves from sun damage.
Skin cancer survivor Hayley Needleman says it concerns her to hear that young people are actively seeking a tan in the sun. "For me, my melanoma appeared after a summer where I’d only been mildly sunburnt once or twice," the 31-year-old told Refinery29. "For some young people, they’re at the beach chasing a tan every weekend, and as a society, we just know it’s not healthy. Tanning products aren’t a safe way to get that tanned look."
But while it's one thing to remember to reapply sunscreen throughout the day, and another to wear light layers to protect exposed skin from the sun, the most sinister concern at present is the pivot back from incidental to intentional time spent in the sun. It prompts the question of why Australians are still aspiring for the darker-skinned look in the first place, and who is pushing this beauty standard all over again. The answer is obvious but deeply entrenched and complicated.
One place where pro-sunburn content is thriving is TikTok, which we know is a platform favoured by young Australians. Despite its ban in December prohibiting people from posting videos that encourage tanning (including the viral "sunburnt challenge"), when you search the word "tanning" on the app, you'll still find multi-day #tancheck progress videos, solarium vlogs and product endorsements. You'll also notice that many videos have hundreds of thousands of likes glorifying the behaviour.
It may be the height of summer and getting a tan is easier than ever — but it's a temporary beauty trend that can have lifelong consequences.
One video showing an influencer's daily tan line progress during a holiday in October is even captioned with "UV index of 11, the sun was really on my side". It's true that a banner now shows up on the app titled, "Tanning. That's Cooked" with light information on the importance of sun protection. However, just search "tanning Australia" and you'll be faced with TikToks showing popular tanning routines and product recommendations, as well as videos with influencers saying they "live for the tan".
Our society's glamorisation of tanning doesn't stop with tanning oils though. Even products that bypass sun exposure — like the dangerous "Barbie drug" tanning nasal spray lambasted by the Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) last October, or fake tans widely available in supermarkets and pharmacies — still perpetuate the idea that there's an "ideal" shade to be. And it still inadvertently leads people to look for a shortcut or a cheaper option back outside in the sun, where the tan comes for free.
We know that sun-tanning is bad, but the process that happens inside our bodies every time we expose ourselves to the harsh sun is often assumed knowledge, says English. "What happens is, your cells detect that the UV radiation from the sun is damaging the DNA, and it makes melanin to try and put a little cap on it — and that's what the tan is," she explains. This process is also described as a "micro parasol" because it's like our cells are trying to put a tiny umbrella up to protect themselves from the sun's rays.
"Even getting a little bit of sun exposure can be damaging, so we have protective repair mechanisms in our bodies," she says. "It's just that they get overwhelmed when you're exposing it to so much sun." English believes that stricter regulations around sunscreen promotion introduced by the TGA in 2022 have left a gap in the market as people are more cautious about talking about it, which in turn, has led to tanning aids sneaking in in their place. Now, their colourful packaging and flavour choices like watermelon are targeting young people in the same way that e-cigarettes do with their perky packaging.
"I think there's an element of denial in the same way that people smoke or vape now — we know it's linked to risk, but we have this mindset that it won't happen to me, right? So it's just like this cognitive dissonance," she says, sharing a recent conversation she had with an acquaintance whose grandmother had a melanoma cut out of her scalp and then proceeded to sunbake outside an hour later.
The scariest part of all is that sometimes, even if you prioritise sun safety, you can still feel its harsh impact. This was the case for Needleman, who admits that her experience wasn't a result of seeking a "real" tan. "I’d always been pretty sun safe; being diagnosed with melanoma was very traumatic and an experience I wouldn’t wish upon anybody," she says. "I’d encourage those who are actively seeking a tan to think about melanoma — and having a traumatic experience like mine — as a real possibility that they’re exposing themselves to."
English acknowledges that while it's easy to point fingers at the consumer, we're also being fed content day in and day out that glamorises having a tan. And let's not forget how difficult it can be to cover up — particularly during summer or while swimming — without feeling like a bit of a dag.
"It's such an uphill battle to try and change the standard in a way that is safe."
"I try to think about how to make being sun-smart something that feels aspirational. And it's so difficult coordinating an outfit where you have a hat and sunglasses that fit [together], and you cover up when people are going to be drawn to some young, beautiful model with a tan in a mini dress [online]," says English.
So what's the answer? Well, a petition with nearly 5,000 signatures at the time of publication is currently calling for more regulation on the advertising of tanning products without SPF, as these are the products currently slipping through the cracks in the TGA regulations. Products that are "influencing young people on TikTok and Instagram to lie out in the sun with the express purpose of tanning their skin".
"The Department of Health needs to thoroughly investigate the advertising and marketing of tanning products in Australia and act quickly to prevent young people from following dangerous trends [that] generations before them have paid the price for," shared petition founder Melissa Mason in a statement.
English agrees, saying forces of influence should be doing more to address the problem. She would also like to see tanning products have similar warnings and visuals that are found on cigarette packaging as well as the Department of Health looking into how tanning products are being promoted right now.
Needleman also stresses that we as individuals must take control of our own health. "Whether you’re intentionally spending a lot of time in the sun or not, you’re at risk of skin cancer," she says. "Even just having lunch in a sunny café or sitting by a window at the office can increase your exposure to harmful UV radiation, so going down to the beach, lathering up in tanning products and baking for hours is so high risk."
It may be the height of summer and getting a tan is easier than ever — but it's a temporary beauty trend that can have lifelong consequences. There's no such thing as a safe tan.