Melanoma Rates In The US Show Skin Care Still Not Widely Practiced By Men

melanoma rates
A new report confirms a decades-old trend: Men are lousy at keeping their skin protected from the sun. Hernán Piñera, CC BY-SA 2.0

Our sunscreen is getting stronger, but the skin cancer keeps coming. A new report from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention shows the rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which is itself the most common form of cancer, have doubled over the last three decades. And the only people who seem to care are women.

Historically, men have never been great at sticking to skin care guidelines. The American ideal of a brawny man bringing home the bacon doesn’t square well with the pastel vibes of lavender and cucumber facial scrubs. More to the point, men generally don’t care about their skin. But research shows taking solely a cosmetic view of skin care is a dangerous and perhaps even deadly one.

Last summer, Surgeon General Dr. Boris Lushniak expressed his concern over the growing prevalence of melanoma in the United States. While other cancers continue to fall, skin cancer has been on the rise for at least the last four decades. Today, roughly 66,000 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with melanoma, and 9,000 of those are estimated to end in death.

Mortality rates due to melanoma have held steady since the early 1980s, which the CDC has hopes of pushing downward through public health initiatives. Their model — the Australian skin cancer prevention program SunSmart — reportedly prevented more than 9,000 new cases of melanoma, over 1,000 deaths, and saved approximately 22,000 life-years between 1988 and 2003, all through education programs in schools and hospitals, mass media campaigns, and community outreach.

Admittedly, women have been embracing healthier skin care practices for years. In 2011, roughly 10,000 more men were diagnosed with melanoma than women. Science suggests a few explanations.

For starters, even as the traditional social roles of male ruggedness and female fragility have begun to blur, the relative differences between the sexes still seem apparent. Women are more likely to apply some type of cosmetic to their face and skin, regardless of whether it boasts an SPF count. Men, on the other hand, are more removed from the ritual, making them more likely to apply sunblock only if they know they’ll spend many hours in the sun. But this is a misconception: Ultraviolet rays can damage the skin in as little as 15 minutes.

Even biologically, men seem to face greater risks. Some evidence suggests that a male tendency to hold manual labor jobs can explain why, despite tumor location and size, men are 55 percent more likely to die from melanomas than women. With greater exposure, combined with poorer health habits, comes a higher likelihood for negative outcomes.

Then again, the root problem may simply be ignorance. Recently, the British Association of Dermatologists found 77 percent of people don’t feel confident in their abilities to spot the signs of skin cancer, despite 72 percent of respondents saying they got sunburned at some point in the last year. Married men may have an advantage in this regard. In 2011, scientists discovered having a wife made men far more likely to seek preventive care than single men; however, married women didn’t show the same behavior. Women, in other words, with their statistically longer lifespans, really do keep their husbands healthier.

The fixes are quick and easy. People can protect themselves with regular application — that is, every two hours — of sunscreen that offers both UVA and UVB protection. (And yes, even on cloudy days.) They can wear more clothing, and they stay inside more often. But that is sort of like calling abstinence a form of birth control, so just be careful and put on some damn sunscreen already.

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