People apply sunscreen while sitting on the steps next to the Astoria Park Pool in New York.
People apply sunscreen while sitting on the steps next to the Astoria Park Pool in New York. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

A public health campaign is partnering with local officials to bring down skin cancer rates by installing dispensers around public pools and beaches.

As we head into the summer, many cities want to make sure residents are slathering on sunscreen. A new initiative in New York City could make it easier to take preventative measures against skin cancer, with free sunscreen dispensers available across all five boroughs.

The dispensers are a collaboration between the company Bright Guard and the nonprofit Impact Melanoma. They began their partnership in 2014, and have since installed over 2000 free dispensers across all 50 states. As part of their expansion, around 80 free dispensers stocked with SPF 30 sunscreen lotion will be placed across the city, at Coney Island, McCarren Park, Randall’s Island, and all public pools and beaches. New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation and City Comptroller Scott Stringer announced that these dispensers will be installed on Saturday at city beaches as part of a two-year pilot program. Depending on the success of the program, Bright Guard hopes to add stations in the city’s parks and all public schools in Manhattan.

Back in 2015, my colleague Jessica Hester wrote about Bright Guard’s initial public health campaign in Miami and Boston, where they installed the sunscreen stations around parks, pools, and beaches. At the time, it was a bit too soon to have a bigger picture about the campaign’s effects. But two years later, the results have been encouraging.

While rates of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—have been increasing across the country, they’ve been declining in the Northeast, where many public sunscreen efforts have been concentrated, says Deb Girard, the executive founder of Impact Melanoma. That is borne out by a recent study out of the University of Colorado. The study looked at reported skin cancer deaths in 48 states between 2003 and 2013. States in the Northeast showed significant decreases in death rates, the report says, adding that prevention efforts such as these types of public health campaigns in cities “played a likely role in this region’s success.”

Bright Guard and Impact Melanoma have been collecting data on sunscreen usage across various cities. This helps them get some insight into possibly changing residents’ patterns. The most common barrier, according to Bright Guard CEO and co-founder Ryan Warren, is often forgetfulness. “It has to be a combination of awareness and prevention to tackle skin cancer, as many people don’t understand how not protecting your skin can be dangerous,” says Warren.

Another important barrier that this public health campaign tackles is affordability. Sunscreen can range anywhere between $10 dollars at the local drugstore to $60 dollars at more specialized skincare boutiques, for example. “The mix of raising awareness about the problem of melanoma and providing a free preventive measure [sunscreen] is an easy step towards reducing skin cancer,” says Warren.

The actual costs of skin care are steep: in the U.S., skin cancer treatment tops $8.1 billion, of which $3.3 billion is just for melanoma. “If we can think of [melanoma] as something to actively avoid, we will be able to save so much money,” Girard says.

Another important tip: sunscreen isn’t just for the sunny days at the beach. It’s just as important to slather some on during the cloudy months, as the ultraviolet rays are strong enough to slip through windows. “It’s not a seasonal item,” says Warren. That’s a good reminder on the temperate West Coast, where the year-round good weather means people are used to the sun, and forget how harmful it can be. When it comes to New York, Warren hopes the severe weather will be a stimulant. With cold winters and scorching summers, Warren says, “they’re very much aware of the seasons, and they probably remember their last horrible sun burn.”

CORRECTION: This post originally misattributed quotes from Ryan Warren.

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