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Most American Adults Do Not Use Sunscreen Regularly

June 1, 2015, by NCI Staff

Man applying sunscreen

The majority of Americans are not using sunscreen regularly to protect their skin from damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, according to a new survey. About 30 percent of women and less than 15 percent of men regularly use sunscreen on both the face and other exposed areas of skin, the survey suggested.

The study, by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), appeared online May 19 in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.  

When used correctly, sunscreen products may help prevent some skin cancers, including melanoma. Broad-spectrum sunscreen products that filter both UVB radiation and UVA radiation and that have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 are recommended.

The findings were consistent with previous studies showing that sunscreen use is low among U.S. adults. But the survey also revealed information about how sunscreen is used. Some adults, particularly women, regularly use sunscreen on the face but not on other exposed skin, the survey suggested.

Women may be more likely to use sunscreen on the face because of the anti-aging benefits, or because many cosmetic products contain sunscreen, noted Dawn Holman, M.P.H., a behavioral scientist at the CDC and the study’s lead author. “However, it’s important to protect your whole body from the sun, not just your face.”

The survey also suggested that sunscreen use is low among non-Hispanic blacks and those who tend not to sunburn.

“These groups may have a lower perceived susceptibility to sun damage and need guidance on balancing the risks and benefits of sun exposure, given the variation in susceptibility even within racial/ethnic groups,” the study authors wrote. As has been reported previously, men tend to use sunscreen less frequently than women, and many do not use sunscreen at all.

Men may view sunscreen as “nonmasculine, messy, or inconvenient,” the authors wrote, noting that sunscreen advertisements tend to target women more than men. Additional research is needed to develop effective sun-safety interventions that target men, they added.

The study also revealed a consistent relationship between sunscreen use and household income. For both men and women in the study, sunscreen use was significantly lower among those with lower household incomes. “This finding suggests that the cost of sunscreen can be a barrier to regular use,” Holman said.

One way to begin to address the issue of cost is for communities to play a role in promoting sun safety, Holman explained. “For example, communities can provide shade in outdoor recreational settings, and this can make it easier for individuals to stay sun-safe while enjoying the outdoors,” she said.

The study, which was answered by more than 4,000 adults, had limitations, the researchers noted, including the use of self-reporting by participants and a lack of information about the reapplication of sunscreen and other sun-safety practices.

“Using broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher can reduce your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging,” Holman said. “But sunscreen shouldn’t be your only line of defense against the sun. It’s best to combine sunscreen with other forms of sun protection and be sure to protect all exposed skin—not just your face.”

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