Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
In a brilliant public health campaign, Boston and Miami installed sunscreen stations near parks, pools, and beaches.
We’ve grown accustomed to seeing hand sanitizer dispensers at restaurants and entrances to office buildings. Guests can help themselves to a squirt. Now, public health campaigns in Boston and Miami are applying that same model to sunscreen.
Boston’s program rolled out July 1 with 30 dispensers in locations such as the Boston Common and Christopher Columbus Park. Each dispenser is filled with SPF 30, according to a press release from the mayor’s office.
The project hit a few glitches, but is getting back on track. “Boston is having new sunscreen dispensers delivered,” Ryan Woods, director of external affairs for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, explained via email. “The original one has a flaw where it would sometimes clog up very easily.”
Since each dispenser costs between $100 and $200, the project could get costly. But it won’t come out of taxpayers’ pockets: Organizations such as the Melanoma Foundation of New England are covering the fees, WBUR reported.
Miami Beach is adopting a similar approach, dotting pools, beaches, and parks with 50 dispensers stocked with SPF 30, Shape reported. The installation and maintenance was covered by the Mount Sinai Medical Center.
The Atlantic’s James Hamblin recently described how consumers get confused by sunscreen labels. They jump at exotic ingredients, like kelp, that promise to revitalize skin, without necessarily opting for the factors suspected to be most useful in limiting sun damage: broad-spectrum protection, water resistance, and an SPF of 30.
Why we need to get schooled about sunscreen
A 2012 article in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings painted a sobering portrait of sun-related illness in young adults. Using a single Minnesota community as a case study, researchers found that melanomas increased eight-fold between 1970 and 2009 for young women, and jumped by 400 percent in men under the age of 39. Data compiled by the Skin Cancer Foundation echoes these findings: There are more cases of skin cancer each year than breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancers combined—and more than 73,870 cases of invasive melanoma are projected to be diagnosed in the U.S. this year. Approximately 10,000 patients are expected to die.
Even though we know that sunscreen matters, we’re not using it. In a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, less than 15 percent of men and 30 percent of women reported regularly applying sunscreen to both their face and extremities.
“Many people are afraid it will cause breakouts on acne-prone skin, or they claim they’re afraid of the chemicals in sunscreens,” explains Dr. Debra Jaliman, author of the book Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “All are bad excuses in my opinion,” she adds.
Other people think that indoor lifestyles eliminate the need for sunscreen. “If you’re living in Arizona or California or Texas or you work outside, it’s a real public health issue,” says Dr. Dina D. Strachan, director of Aglow Dermatology in New York City. “If you’re an office worker in Minnesota, you might get away with it in a way that people just can’t in Texas.” But, she adds, ultraviolet light can even permeate windows.
It’s also a sociological issue. “If you live in a society in which most people are in offices, and rich people are rich are in Rio in February, then having a tan is a sign of wealth,” she says. “Everyone wants to be perceived as wealthy.”
Fear of vitamin D deficiencies may inspire some to forgo sunscreen, adds Strachan. (Very low levels may cause symptoms including bone weakness and muscle pain, according to the National Institutes of Health—but levels can be regulated through diet or supplements). She doesn’t think that the tradeoff is worth the gamble. “I’ve heard the question posed as, ‘Would you smoke if you could get Vitamin D from the cigarette?’” she says.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends slathering on an ounce of sunscreen—about the size of a shot glass—every two hours during prolonged, strong sun exposure, such as a day at the beach.
It’s too soon to tell whether the sunscreen dispensers will inspire sunbathers to load up on the goopy lotion. But Jose Lutzky, director of the Mount Sinai Melanoma Program, believes that they’re a public health obligation. "Free sunscreen should be as readily available as public drinking water," he said.