Fuck The Return Of Sunbaking, Skin Cancer Is Not A Trend

Contributor: Melissa Mason

For a while there, it seemed we had finally binned tanning for good. Sunbaking? Not a vibe. Sun protection? Sexy. Then influencers started posting their tan lines and beach selfies with worrying signs of sun damage. TikTok had to ban the promotion of dangerous melanotan nose sprays, and it became clear that lounging in the sun with the intention of changing your skin tone was, terrifyingly, back on trend.

I don’t need to remind you that getting a tan is very dangerous. Or maybe I do. Melanoma – a type of cancer that usually occurs on the parts of the body that have had too much sun exposure – is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in Australia according to The Cancer Council, and around one in 17 people will be diagnosed by the time they are 85.

Alongside NZ, we have the world’s highest rate of melanoma. So you’d think we, as the younger generations with the most knowledge around how fucked up lolling around in the sun can be, would be doing everything we can to prevent getting it.

Still, I understand, kinda – lying in the sun feels good, and many of us like the look of a tan, so it’s easy to forget about melanoma when it’s a hot, sunny day and the sun feels warm on your skin. 

It’s even easier when you’re seeing influencers normalising that behaviour, too, and brands are freely allowed to advertise tanning products in ways that promote lying out in the sun.

I first noticed the trend of influencers sharing tanning posts on IG page Influencer Updates AU. They credit Outspoken podcast with covering the dangerous new trend. The post showed major Aussie influencers Mia Fevola, Tayla Damir, Rozalia Russian and Sophia Begg’s recent beachside and post-sun photos. Some directly wrote that they were tanning. Some showed off tan lines. Some had what looked like worrying, peeling burns on their chests. 

Mia Fevola tanning instagram
Mia Fevola posted a series showing off noticeable tan lines recently. Image: Instagram / @mia.fev

All were directly or indirectly promoting getting a tan.

I went to TikTok next. Typed in “tanning” and got streams of videos from Australian users with big followings promoting lounging in the sun with the express purpose of getting a tan.

@erikawhite_ My tanning routine while living in Australia☀️💛 #tanningroutine #tanningroutineinthesun #tanningeroutineaus #tanningroutineaustralia #tanningroutineoutside ♬ my kind of woman sped up – autumn &lt3

TikTok influencer Liv Kirby regularly posts about beach days, including this one that directly mentions sun tanning.

@livvkirbyy anyone else 🥲 #imtheproblem #beach #tanning #goldcoast ♬ Anti-Hero – Taylor Swift

But really, these posts are just a symptom of the real issue – that brands are freely allowed to advertise tanning products in ways that encourage actively seeking a sun tan.

@thefoxtan Summer hits differently in The Fox Tan☀️ #fyp #foryou #thefoxtan #summer #tanning #beautyhacks #tanninghacks ♬ original sound – The Fox Tan

We have the most advanced fake tan offering we’ve ever had in history. Back when I was a teenager it was orange crap in a spray bottle, these days you can find fake tans formulated specifically for your skin tone.

There has never been LESS of a need to lie out in the sun, so why are we still doing it?

The Sydney Morning Herald released a really interesting take on this on Sunday. As writer Mary Ward pointed out, Millennials grew up with the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign in their formative years, and a lot of debate over solariums. But aside from an update to the Slip, Slop, Slap campaign that added extra steps, the last time the federal government spent cash on a sun safety health campaign was 2015/2016.

Ex-Love Island star Tayla Damir shared this to her Stories recently. Image: Instagram / @tayla.damir

The fear of the sun hasn’t been burned (pun intended) into us via clever and educational marketing, it seems. We’re living in a time where a lot of our info comes from social media, so if these women we follow for fashion and beauty vibes are laying out in the sun telling us they’re getting a tan, we’re naturally going to start being influenced. That’s why they call them influencers, right?

“But what if they were wearing SPF 50+?” I hear you ask. Let’s debunk that.

“People go tanning and say ‘oh it’s okay, I wore sunscreen’,” says Hannah English, author of Your Best Skin. Hannah’s got a background in pharmaceutical research and has become a big dog in the Instagram world when it comes to promoting sun safety. She explained to me why slathering on the SPF 50+ isn’t enough when it comes to sun protection.

tanning influencers
Rozalia Russian came under fire from Outspoken for this post. Instagram / @rozalia_russian

 “Your skin makes the tan because it’s being damaged, and it knows it’s being damaged. What’s actually happening is the UV is hitting the DNA in your cells and warping it,” she explains.

That’s why sunscreen isn’t the sole guideline given for preventing melanoma. In fact, it’s one of five. The Melanoma Institute of Australia says that on top of wearing a broad spectrum SPF50+ sunscreen that you reapply every two hours and after swimming or exercise, we should also seek shade. Especially during the hottest parts of the day, wear sun-protective clothing that covers our legs, back, shoulders and arms, have wrap-around sunglasses on and wear a broad brimmed hat. 

If you’re laying out in full sun for hours on end, even if you’re covered in sunscreen, your skin is only getting darker because there is damage being done. “The sunscreen can only do so much,” explains Hannah. “The reason you get tanned or burnt even with it on is because a bit of sun will always make it through.”

Wait – what about people who have skin that naturally darkens? “There will be people who naturally tan despite taking all the precautions,” Hannah added. 

It’s not about whether you tan or don’t tan in summer. It’s the actively trying to get tanned part that’s no bueno.

Ellie Gonsalves, who has 1.2 million followers, responded to the trend on Instagram.

She was particularly concerned with the effect tanning promotion was going to have on young people. “I stopped sitting in the sun when I was 17, and I didn’t realise this but my skin is really vulnerable to the sun,” she says in the video. “I have moles on my body and I had one cut out a few years ago as a precaution. It could have been so much worse if I spent my 20s sitting in the sun.”

Trawl the comments under Ellie’s post, on Outspoken and on Influencer Updates AU and you’ll find plenty of people slamming the criticism, saying it’s none of our business what other people do with their bodies.

Sure. That’s true, to a degree. If people want to hear all the warnings and continue to behave dangerously, that is absolutely their choice. It doesn’t harm anyone else if they actively seek a tan from UV rays, right?

I think that’s a little simplistic.

Combined, the women mentioned by Outspoken and Influencer Updates AU have over 1.4 million followers on Instagram alone. 

That is a lot of influence. 

Their Instagram pages are public, which means anyone can follow them and see what they post. They also engage with their following – so it’s pretty reductive to say that whatever they post isn’t going to have an effect.

We’re talking about photos and videos ABOUT lying in the sun –  with the purpose of darkening skin. 

Some of the worst examples of this are coming directly from brands that make bank off us seeking a sun tan. Carroten, a Greek brand that makes both tanning and sunscreen products, has gone viral on TikTok for its Intensive Tanning Gel. It regularly promotes the gel on its own Australian TikTok page, often with footage of women applying it while lying out in the sun.

@carrotenau Spotted: Our one and only OG Intensive Tanning Gel 😍🧡 With an Advanced Tanning System you are promised an immediate sun-kissed GLOW #fyp #summer #carrotenau #sunscreen #tanning #foryoupage #tan #tiktokmademebuyit #pool #tanninghacks #tanningtips #bikinis ♬ original sound – EX7STENCE™

Milano Drop offers a different kind of tanning product – liquid drops you take orally that promise “your best natural tan yet”. Their TikTok is also full of women showing off tan lines they credit the product for.

@milanodropauStop what you’re doing!! Say GOODBYE to fake tan and HELLO to your best natural tan yet ☀️💛 Our formula is made with the highest potency possible, containing natural ingredients to ensure amazing results for all skin types. It’s the revolutionised way of tanning 👌🏼😉 why dream of your best tan when you can make it a reality 🙈🤍♬ original sound – Milano Drop

Look. We’re Aussies and we have a really big beach culture so of course we’re going to see content coming from both brands and influencers (and friends, and family) of people enjoying time in the sun. But this isn’t people just happening to be in the sun on occasion, or posting from a Euro holiday.

I’m talking about showing off tan lines. Images with bottles of tan accelerants in them. The message someone’s feed sends when it’s photo-after-photo at the beach, in full sun, in a bikini, with their skin darkening dramatically over a period of weeks – no sun protection messaging or mention of fake tanning to be seen. 

The fact is, if you are out here with a following on social media, one you cultivated and intentionally grew (not to mention if you’re capitalising on it financially), you hold some responsibility for what you post. Just like the anti-vax posts we saw from influencers last year, pro-tanning posts need to be identified as dangerous in their messaging.

Are we as humans going to fuck up? Sure! Only recently did I screw up on a beach day, winding up with a burnt butt after snorkelling in a bikini. No one’s perfect, and that sun is BRUTAL. We can’t expect influencers to maintain perfection – but we can hold them to a standard of not actively promoting dangerous behaviour.

We can also expect better from our own government. If the TGA is going to crack down on how sunscreen is advertised and marketed, restricting how influencers and brands talk about it, shouldn’t we see an even more serious crackdown on how tan accelerator products are being advertised and marketed?

What I hope is that influencers who have been posting pro-tanning content recognise the impact, issue an apology and rectify the damage with sun-safe messaging going forward.

It’s less about what they do in their private time – I obviously hope they choose to be sun-safe, but that really is their choice and theirs alone – and more about them understanding and honouring their level of influence.

I also want to see the federal government give a shit about how tan accelerators are being advertised and marketed, especially on social media. In fact, I started a petition here that I’m planning to take to my local member, with the hope that action will be taken (hilariously, my local member literally IS the prime minister right now, so I may have to try some other avenues. Anthony Albanese or not, I’ll get it in good hands).

Normalising tanning is one of the worst roads we can go down. This week, it was announced that a 28-year-old woman named Natalie Fornaiser sadly lost her battle with stage IV cancer. Natalie was diagnosed with melanoma at 20, and spent years campaigning online to spread melanoma awareness.

If you think it can’t happen to you, this is your wake up call. So many of us are already going to be dealing with melanoma in our futures. We should be doing what we can to not only try and avoid it for ourselves, but to avoid increasing the terrifying figures of melanoma rates in Australia.

Wear SPF 50+ sunscreen. Reapply it. Sit in the shade. Avoid prolonged periods in the sun. Wear a hat, wear sunglasses. Cover up if you’re going to be in the sun for a while. Get a skin check — clinics like Sun Doctors are nationwide and referral-free.

Most importantly, don’t try to get a sun tan. There is a very serious, very devastating chance you’ll regret it.

Melissa is a freelance writer. You can find her on Instagram and TikTok.