Will Free Sunscreen Prevent Skin Cancer?

Nicer weather across the country is bringing everyone outside in droves to enjoy the sunshine. But most of you won’t be using sunscreen. That’s why many cities have decided to provide sunscreen in public parks, free of charge, in hopes you’ll use it.


In the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined. The annual cost for treating skin cancer is about $8.1 billion in the U.S. Men are more likely to be diagnosed with invasive melanoma and more likely to die than women. People with darker skin also need to use sunscreen. The myth that darker skin doesn’t need protection may be the reason why late-stage melanoma diagnoses are more prevalent among non-Hispanic black and Hispanic patients compared to Caucasian patients. But, dark skin does burn and is at risk of developing skin cancer.


In the past 50 years, public health efforts have made good strides in promoting skin protection, but many people, especially youth, still want to spend hours in the sun to get that ideal glow. Since the introduction of Coppertone, the first mass-marketed sunscreen, in the 1950s, use has increased. However, it is still not widely used on a daily basis, as recommended by The American Academy of Dermatology.


So what is being done to increase use? In 2014, the Surgeon General made a call to action to prevent skin cancer. Public health campaigns are educating people about the importance of sun protection. Eleven states now prohibit minors under 18 from using indoor tanning salons and in 2014, the FDA reclassified UV tanning beds from low risk to moderate risk. People who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – by 75%.


And, like I mentioned, several cities, such as Miami and Boston, are getting creative. Public health officials are partnering with non-profits and public park officials to install sunscreen dispensers in parks, an intervention that is relatively low-cost for the city. In Tampa, the cost was estimated at $8,000 to $12,000 a year for 20 dispensers worth of sunscreen (the actual dispensers will be donated by a non-profit).


It will be interesting to find out if access to sunscreen is a top barrier to its use. Are people not buying sunscreen because of the price, lack of knowledge on the importance of daily use, or something else? One study mentioned cost as a barrier to use, but also suggested men’s low use was because they felt sunscreen was a feminine product. Others disliked the greasy feel. So, while offering free sunscreen certainly won’t hurt, it would be most cost-efficient to first figure out the main reason people aren’t using sunscreen and then address that. If it is access or convenience, then dispensers make perfect sense. Or will the dispensers go mostly unused, like the many bottles of sunscreen some people have sitting at home? I also wonder how this new intervention will impact sunscreen use among youth. Kids are often on the move and don’t think about the long-term damage to their skin. If they aren’t getting burned, they assume it’s fine. Other interventions, like education, visuals showing skin damage, providing shaded areas in parks, or perfecting the consistency of sunscreen so it is less greasy might make an even larger impact.


While I definitely applaud public health officials for teaming up with others to prevent skin cancer, I’m eagerly awaiting the hopefully forthcoming evaluation of whether or not the dispensers are widely used.

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