In the wise words of Baz Lurhman “If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it”. Indeed, this is great advice, but are we capable of following it?
Aside from the obvious pain and embarrassment of sunburn, there is a much more dangerous risk that is surprisingly being ignored; the causal relationship between UV light and skin cancer. Skin cancer is one of the most easily detected and preventable forms of cancer, but it is also the most prevalent cancer, with its incidence increasing annually.
At the University of Texas, a group of medical students were interviewed to determine their perceptions of skin cancer and its prevention. The results showed that the students understood the causes of skin cancer, but were unsure about the correct use of sunscreens and the meaning of SPF. Most of the students also used a tanning bed or tanned in the sun to improve their appearance.
The authors report that the most common reason given for ignoring skin cancer warnings was that “it is not as scary as other cancers”, such as breast and lung cancer, along with the lack of realisation that it could actually happen to them. The study showed that even well-educated medical students do not understand the importance of preventative behaviours and the level of risk that they expose themselves to.
Another recent study of the sun protection behaviours of Australian adolescents reflects these findings. In general, there is a high awareness and knowledge about skin cancer risk and the adolescents’ attitudes to sun protection are very positive, yet this knowledge does not always translate into adequate sun protection behaviours.
There are many situational and motivational factors that affect our sun protection behaviour; it cannot be explained by a straightforward lack of awareness. Like smoking, drinking and flossing your teeth, you are simply more likely to use sunscreen if your friends think it’s cool. The study’s authors advocate more school based intervention to improve the sun protective behaviour of the adolescents, but how much difference would this really make whilst tanned skin remains so fashionable?
What’s more, there are a surprising number of blogs claiming that sunscreen causes more harm than good. Some even claim that protecting yourself from UV rays is bad for you, and that the chemical oxybenzone, which is used in sunscreens to absorb UV light, actually causes skin cancer. . Both the American Academy of Dermatology and the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) approve oxybenzone as safe and protective from UV rays.
Yet reading these enlightening posts encouraging people to be irresponsible, one could wonder whether these beliefs are so prevalent because they are convenient. Do people believe sunscreen is bad to justify not wanting to wear it?
Edwards Nanyes et al., Arch. Dermatol. (2012) 148:392
Hawkes et al., BMC Cancer (2012) 12:1
Craciun et al., Int.J. Behav. Med. (2012) 19:65–72