The Real Reason Australian Don't Wear Sunscreen Is a Bit Sad, Really

Updated 01/08/19

As members of a generation who grew up hearing ‘80s sun safety icon Sid the Seagull preach a message that captured the changing zeitgeist of the time—Slip, Slop, Slap—we’re committed to ending this deadly disease. Our goal is to encourage you to take the steps necessary to help prevent the 95% of melanomas caused by the sun. We’re talking: Daily application and reapplication of broad-spectrum sunscreen, wearing hats, sunglasses and cover-ups, finding shade during peak sun intensity hours, having regular specialist skin checks, and knowing how to stay alert to changes in your body.

It’s estimated that one person dies every five hours from melanoma in Australia, and that’s not okay. The moment to #CallTimeOnMelanoma has arrived, and we’re blowing the end of game whistle.

In the decade I’ve spent as a beauty editor, I've been fortunate enough to attend dozens (hundreds?) of skincare launches. From scrubs and serums to SPF, over the years I've listened intently as various experts have rattled off facts and figures about all manner of ingredients, formulations and technology. These days it's rare I have a significant reaction of surprise to a statistic. Not because I think I know everything (of course not—I am always learning), but because I’ve simply heard a lot of the information before.

But a few months ago, as Neutrogena introduced its latest facial sunscreen, Hydro Boost Water Gel Lotion SPF50 ($17) to market, brand ambassador Erin Holland dropped a stat on the assembled media that rocked my goddamn world—close to 80 per cent of Australian women don't wear sunscreen every day. What. The. Hell.

For me, the reason why was even more shocking: Overwhelmingly women don't like the feel of sunscreen. I don't know if these truths shook me more than they should have. Perhaps because I live in a beauty bubble, I have somewhat lost touch? It's possible. Maybe it's just that skin protection is a hot-button issue for me right now because my friend is dealing with melanoma. Either way, that moment was significant in that it became a further inspiration for the #CallTimeOnMelanoma education and awareness campaign we are currently running across our ByrdieWho What Wear and MyDomaine Australia sites.

Now having had time to ponder the why I can understand how finding an SPF that suits you and sits nicely under makeup could be frustrating. I acknowledge I have never shared this experience because for a long while I have been sent new sunscreens to try for work. That said, I would never have guessed product feel alone was preventing women from adequately protecting their skin. (If this is you, please peep this team roundup of tried-and-true favourites.)

But back to that Neutrogena launch event. After the formalities were over, Holland and I sat down for a chat. The model and tastemaker grew up in Queensland and is incredibly passionate about sun safety and skin protection—she has had a few scares both herself and in her family. I wanted to get her take on why Australian women are dropping the ball on SPF application and what we can do about it. Ahead, we chat about what Holland has learned in her role as the face of Neutrogena's SPF range, and why skin checks and constant vigilance are key to preventing sun-related cancers.

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@erinvholland

So, what brought you to Neutrogena originally?

Growing up in Queensland the importance of sun safety was impressed upon me constantly. Neutrogena is equally passionate about spreading that message and they have quality products to boot, so it’s an easy fit. This is the second sun safety campaign I have been a part of with Neutrogena and this time we’ve got a new product to launch too. We’re focused on making daily sunscreen aesthetically pleasing to encourage people to want to use it.

My family has had a few close shaves, as have I, so I think it is important to get the information out there. So many Aussies aren’t protecting themselves against the sun every day—I find that alarming. This mentality of, ‘It won’t happen to me, I’ll be fine,’ is problematic. Because it absolutely can.

There have been a few stats thrown out today. The most shocking for me was that 78 per cent of Australians don’t use a primary sunscreen, and 51 per cent say it's because they don’t like the feel. It does surprise me quite so many people are still not on board.

I think that’s indicative of how we should be talking about this. If someone is not going to comply based on preventing skin cancer, maybe they will hear us on the aesthetic benefits of fighting ageing by staying out of the sun or protecting yourself when in the sun. Whatever works. If I can’t get through to someone from a medical perspective, maybe for vanity’s sake they’ll use sunscreen.

@erinvholland

Have you found that since you’ve been working with Neutrogena there are people in your own life who own up to not wearing sunscreen?

Absolutely. People say silly things like, 'But I want a tan'. I actively try to stay out of the sun, and I can tell you there are so many amazing faux tans out there. You don’t need to bake your skin to get a bit of colour. It’s frustrating. Of all the horrible things that can happen to someone health-wise in life, sun-related cancers can largely be avoided. We need to impress upon people how important it really is. Putting on sunscreen in the morning can help prevent skin cancer—why wouldn’t you?

Why is being sun safe important to you?

My skin is susceptible to sun spots, and I’ve already had a few things cut out of my shoulder—you can see the scars. The thing is, I have always been careful in the sun, even when I was younger, and I've still had scares. Things that could have turned out bad, had I not been more diligent.

Family history plays a part, too. I grew up with a message of sun safety being constantly driven into me by my mum, because of what she’s been through. She had quite a bad scare when I was about 16 years old and had to have something cut out of her face three or four times because they just couldn’t get it all and it was throwing up as pre-cancerous. I remember going for my learner’s license and she couldn’t come with me because she was in the hospital getting this thing removed. When she came home, she was traumatised.

She told me, 'You have to look after your skin, you can’t let this happen to you'. It will be stuck in my head forever—it was terrifying. She now has a big scar about 5 cm wide on her jawline.  

Yep, I don’t know if people fully appreciate how gruesome and invasive those procedures can be. It’s not just getting something quickly burned off…

That’s part of what mum was so upset about. Her doctor had to go in three times in the same area. Of course, it was very painful, but the amount of flesh they had to take away to make sure they had got everything was alarming. With the moles I had cut out of my shoulder, I was shocked at the scars left behind too. I had been putting off having them taken out because I didn’t want the scars, but it got to the point where I was like, 'What am I doing?' I realised I was potentially compromising my health.

These things are nasty, and they can spread. It is important, and if it needs to be done, it needs to be done.

@erinvholland

Do you do skin checks yearly?

Every 12 months I do professional skin checks. I have moles, so I constantly keep an eye on what they are, if I’ve developed more, or if they’re starting to change in shape or colour which can be a worrying sign. My boyfriend is a cricket player and is out in the sun all day, and it’s mandatory for him to have skin checks every six months because of that. I often think of all the other professions based outside, and hope the same practices are in place for them. And if they’re not they should be.

But every twelve months everyone should be getting their skin checked—no matter your skin tone.

What was the catalyst for having your moles cut out?

I had seen they were changing but it was my mum who said, 'Erin those look nasty'. I live in Sydney and she is in Cairns and because we go months without seeing each other she really notices. She told me she thought they were looking a bit funny and to have them checked, so I did. Having someone else watching out is important because when something is on your body and you see it every day it can be hard to notice differences. My partner Ben [Cutting] recently said to me, 'You’ve got a couple of spots on your back that look bigger than they used to'.

I can’t see my back so that is a helpful prompt.

Those had just started to change—they grew and got darker. Of course, I got them checked, and while they’re not currently a problem they potentially could be in the future. I think it’s best we take them out. All fine for now, but for me, the risk is not worth taking.

At the time you had the moles removed from your shoulder, I read they were ‘dangerous’, what exactly does that mean?

I think that was a bit of a liberty—I said they had the potential to be dangerous. I was going to an event that night and had been putting it off but there’s always an event on, so I decided I didn’t care about the plasters, I was just going to rock them. I had three cut off my back, one off my neck, and one from my face. I thought if someone asks me about it, great, I want to talk about it. I’m so glad I did because I ended up working with a wonderful brand in Neutrogena.

Did you find a lot of people wanted to talk to you about it? It was brave in the sense that on a red carpet event everything is meant to be perfection. I thought it was a bold move in that way.

Part of the reason I kept putting off getting it done was that I always had something coming up. Ultimately, I was like, you know what? This is my health. Just get it done, just do it. Because when you put things off all of a sudden six months have gone by. And then 12 months have gone by. Life gets away from you. I guess it was an aesthetically brave choice to do a red carpet with plasters all over me, but I love the fact people jumped on it and wrote stories about it. It was great to create a conversation about something meaningful rather than what I was wearing or what my makeup was.

@erinvholland

Is there anything you’ve learned about Australian women and sunscreen that particularly resonated with you?

The reasons why people don’t want to wear it. The fact that sunscreen can feel oily or that it doesn’t layer well under makeup or maybe it clogs your pores and gives you pimples. I can understand why people give up on wearing it every day. That’s exactly why Neutrogena has come up with their latest launch—it’s a product that eradicates all the aesthetic reasons people might not want to wear SPF. I understand that Present Erin is only worried about what Erin looks like today, rather than Future Erin having to deal with sun damage.

So the question becomes how can I get Present Erin to wear sunscreen, and the answer is to develop a product that is so good it gives her no reason not to.

I think it’s incredible Neutrogena has managed to develop a sun protection product that also has beauty benefits. It creates the best surface to put your makeup on because it’s soft and moisturising but still a bit matte. When I first tried it, I couldn’t stop touching my own face. It’s accessible, and it’s packed with hyaluronic acid as well. That stuff’s amazing. More of that! All of that, please!

Tips for reapplying sunscreen—how do you do it once you have makeup on?

This stuff absorbs well so you can pat a bit more on top when you’re touching up and it will sink in quite well. It is lightweight and a nice size to carry around so it’s easy to pop in your handbag. I took it to the Caribbean with me recently which was nice. I wasn’t wearing a lot of makeup, so I mixed it with a little dab of foundation and put it all over. It was fresh and glowy—I basically gave it a tint.

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