We Don’t Take Sun Protection Seriously … and It’s Time to Change That

woman and her dog at the beachDespite the warnings we’ve all heard, many people have yet to appreciate the importance of protecting their skin from the sun. Even when offered free sunscreen, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, people chose not to apply it to the sun-exposed areas of their skin. To make matters more complicated, sunscreen may not protect you as well as you think it will.

“Sun Protection is Not a Priority”

“Unfortunately, for many people, sun protection is not a priority,” says senior study author Dr. Ingrid Polcari of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus.  Polcari and her research team set up complimentary sunscreen dispensers at the Minnesota State Fair, which draws approximately 1.7 million attendees each August, then observed the actions of passersby.

The team observed around 17,000 attendees using the sunscreen. Of those, just 33% applied sunscreen to all the areas of their skin that were exposed to the sun. Troublingly, less than half of the individuals who used an inadequate amount of sunscreen applied it to their faces. Very, very few applied any to their chest or legs.

While it’s certainly possible—and perhaps even preferable—to use alternate means of protecting your skin from the sun, like hat or a long-sleeved shirt, the researchers found that close to 40% of the attendees they saw applying an insufficient quantity of sunscreen were not using any of those methods.

Making Sun Protection Part of Everyday Life

Dr. Elizabeth Martin, president of Pure Dermatology and Aesthetics in Hoover, Alabama, believes that people’s failure to protect their skin stems from misconceptions about sun exposure. “Many believe that sunscreen is only for when you are at the beach, and that it’s not needed as a part of everyday life,” Martin wrote in an email to NBC News.

Martin is also concerned by the common misconception that it’s not necessary to wear sunscreen on overcast days. “Even then,” she wrote, “up to about 80% of the sun’s harmful UV rays can reach the skin.”

Is Your Sunscreen Sabotaging You?

Even if you understand the importance of everyday sun protection, the products you choose may be letting you down. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has spent over a decade studying the safety and efficacy of sunscreens made in the United States. There have never
been more types of sunscreen available for purchase, and it’s easy to become bewildered by the array of claims the different bottles carry. Yet when it woman applying sunscreencomes to ingredient efficacy, the United States lags far behind the international sunscreen market.

In 2014, President Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act to speed up the review of new ingredients with the goal of bringing American sunscreens up to international standards. In the meantime, if you choose to purchase sunscreen from a U.S. manufacturer, the EWG recommends choosing a mineral-only sunscreen. While these types of sunscreens account for only 34% of products, they outperform their higher profile competitors. Sunscreens with active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are stable in sunlight…offer balanced protection from both types of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) … and don’t contain potentially dangerous additives like oxybenzone, which can be found in 70% of non-mineral sunscreens.