The message that sunscreen can prevent sunburns, early skin ageing and most skin cancers, including melanoma, the deadliest form, is now backed by a large randomised trial conducted in Australia. [1]

Scientists at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) have randomly selected 1,621 residents from the city of Nambour, to participate in a trial which ran from 1992 to 1996. Half the participants applied sunscreen every day and the other half continued to apply sunscreen as they would normally. After 15 years, the number of people who developed melanomas from the discretionary sunscreen group was twice that of the group who had applied daily sunscreen in the trial.

This is the first time that a randomised trial has been conducted that can evaluate if using sunscreen prevents melanoma,” explained lead researcher and Head of QIMR’s Cancer and Population Studies Laboratory Professor Adèle Green.

By randomly assigning people to the two groups we overcame the bias present in other studies. Often the very people who are predisposed to developing melanomas, eg people with fair skin, are the people predisposed to applying sunscreen and therefore it is impossible to determine if sunscreen is independently able to prevent melanomas.

The effectiveness of sunscreen’s protection against melanoma has been highly controversial and Professor Adèle Green deems that QIMR’s now provide some assurance to medical professionals, public health authorities and the general public, that the regular application of sunscreen is likely to be beneficial with regard to melanoma protection. “While sunscreen use is an important part of skin cancer prevention, they of course are not the whole solution: other sun protection measures should be continued too,” she added

Australia is the country with the highest rates of melanoma and skin cancer in the world, and residents of Queensland have rates even higher than other Australians. In an effort to refine their understanding of the factors that underlie skin cancer risk, researchers at the QIMR recently embarked on the largest skin cancer research study ever conducted in Australia. More than 200,000 men and women will be invited to participate.

Around 451,000 people will be newly diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancers in Australia in 2010, and more than 2,000 will develop melanoma,” said Associate Professor David Whiteman from QIMR’s Cancer Control Group.