My first summer in Australia was one of the longest I ever had. Up until then I had never really experienced the fierceness of the sun. I was out at the beach one day for just five minutes and I got punished with one of the worst sunburns ever. The sun really seems to be closer to Earth in Australia than in the rest of the world. It's one of those things you don't really believe until you experience it. From that first year on I always tried to break the summer by going somewhere else in the world, mainly home for the winter Christmas. On the occasional times when I couldn't escape the whole of the long summer, I would be one of those people at the beach for a 6 am swim in the ocean and then I would spend most of the day indoors or under shelter until the late afternoon.
The summers don't seem too long anymore, but we're not one of those families who go to the beach every single day. I still like going late in the afternoon or early evening. One day I bumped into a friend at the car park, as she was getting her boys ready for the beach, successfully making them look like cupcakes covered with white icing. Only it was tonnes of sunblock, not sugar. I couldn't help but ask her why she was doing that.
'Oh, I always do it. My kids don't get out of the house without sunscreen on.'
'But it's four thirty-seven in the afternoon!'
'I don't care what time it is. You can never be too careful, I get paranoid.'
'And the boys are quite happy having all that cream on their bodies several times I day', I observed.
'Well, they are used to it. I've been doing it since they were babies and it's become second nature. They know the sun is really bad for you.'
I was gobsmacked. My friend is a well-educated intelligent person, yet here was another example of someone following authority without question, the result of a quarter of a century of a very successful campaign, the "Slip, Slop, Slap".
When I first had my babies I was also very careful, never exposing them directly to the sun. I covered them with hats and at the beach they always wore rashies and boardies. Like all Australian kids, they are so used to wearing hats in summer that they won't go outside without one. And they'll never go to the beach or in the water without their rashies on, even though I tell them sometimes it's okay to go without when it's late in the afternoon. But I was never too keen on the sunscreen, especially not on their faces. It just seemed very unnatural to cover their soft cheeks and noses with the yucky and smelly stuff, especially because they hated it as well, and still do. I always listen to them because I believe children are more in touch with their intuition than adults are. So when Alex says, 'I don't want that horrible stuff on my face' and I say 'But you might get burnt if you don't put it on and that would really hurt and might even cause disastrous consequences' (a phrase he loves thanks to the Lego ninjas), and Dave says, 'I'm not having that on either, and I don't even want to go outside, the sun's too hot', I know they're right, and that's what we do. We've had the same tub of sunscreen for the last four years.
The skin cancer aware message of the campaign has so successfully been absorbed into the Australian psyche that people who are always slipping on a shirt, slopping on the 30+ sunscreen and slapping on a hat may in fact be exposing themselves to the sun more than non-sunscreen users. So, if they are not applying the sunscreen correctly, they might be more prone to develop skin cancer. And if they are, they might belong to the 30% to 70% of the Australian population with a vitamin D deficiency, which has also been linked to colon, breast and prostate cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.
If you're one of those Australians who is not getting enough vitamin D because you cover yourself with sunscreen and all its potentially harmful chemicals, you can always get vitamin D supplements, which might upset your stomach, but then you can take more tablets to remedy that...
Where does it end? In our materialistic society, when you have a problem this is what you are encouraged to do: buy, buy and buy. But the sun is free, it is up to us to use it with caution.