This post has been updated.
You won't be surprised that few of us regularly use sunscreen on our faces and other exposed skin, but the actual numbers are pretty alarming. In a survey released Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that just 14.3 percent of men and 29.9 percent of women say they regularly apply sunscreen to both their faces and other places like hands and arms.
The numbers are a little better when researchers asked about the face alone: 42.6 percent of women say they regularly protect their faces, while 18.1 percent of men say they do. (I'm totally guilty on this one; despite a lot of time spent outdoors, the only time I use sunscreen is at the beach.) The new data appears in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
All of these stats are unacceptable. One in five people will develop skin cancer in his or her lifetime and a broad spectrum sunscreen, which protects from UVA and UVB rays, is the best way to prevent it. Use SPF 15 or greater, and don't count on sunscreen alone, said Dawn Holman, a behavioral scientist for the CDC's division of cancer prevention and control, because it wears off. Combine sunscreen with wide-brimmed hats, wear light, long-sleeved clothes and sunglasses, seek shade and alter your habits so you're not outside when the sun is most intense, she said.
"Sunscreen really works best when it's combined with other forms of sun protection," Holman said.
The immediate battle is to get more people to use sunscreen, however, and here's where a doctor from Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami and the city of Miami Beach have come up with a clever idea: They're installing 50 sunscreen dispensers on the beach to make it available to sunbathers free of charge. The dispensers will contain SPF 30 sunscreen. The program appears to be the first of its kind in the U.S.
"Skin cancer rates are on the rise despite melanoma being the single most preventable cause of cancer," Jose Lutsky, director of the Melanoma Program at Mount Sinai, said in a news release. "Free sunscreen should be as readily available as public drinking water."
Lutzky said in an interview that the tricky thing about sunscreen is that applying it makes people believe they have long-lasting protection and they tend to spend more time in the sun. In fact, it should be reapplied every two hours, more often if you've been in the water and toweled off, Holman said. But for any two people who spend equal amounts of time in the sun, the one wearing sunscreen is definitely better protected against cancer and other harms, Lutzky said.
If this idea works, I can only imagine the possibilities. Free sunscreen with your fries and funnel cakes. Free sunscreen at beach hotels. Free sunscreen at daytime ballgames. The cost savings over treating melanoma have to be enormous.
Last week, the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, launched a campaign to persuade more Americans to protect their skin against the sun. The information contains a rating of sunscreens that the organization considers unsafe or ineffective. For help choosing a sunscreen, see EWG's guide.
So why our nation-wide aversion to protecting ourselves from a costly, possibly disfiguring disease? Holman has some ideas.
• Cost. The survey showed an association between income and sunscreen use. "The cost of sunscreen may be a barrier for some people," Holman said.
• The guy factor. Lots of research shows how lousy we men are at taking care of ourselves, including going to the doctor when something is wrong. Extend that to sunscreen. "Men may perceive sunscreen as a feminine product," Holman said. Women are much more accustomed to putting creams and other products on their skin.
• Misinformation. African Americans and other dark-skinned people may believe they're immune to skin cancer. "It’s true that they are less susceptible," Holman said. "What I will say is no one is completely immune. Anyone can get it." When blacks do contract skin cancer, it's often diagnosed much later and leads to a much greater percentage of deaths, she said.
If all this isn't enough to make you re-think your habits, consider this: a single sunburn at any time of life increases your chances of developing skin cancer. And how often do we burn? A study released last year showed that 37.1 percent of adults had suffered a sunburn in the previous year (emphasis mine), and among adults aged 18-29 it was 52 percent. Holman said only about 10 percent of high-school aged youths are using sunscreen.
So slather it on, people. It's that time of year. For more information on how to protect yourself against skin cancer, go here.