A recent Swedish study finds that gender, age, educational level, and skin type appear to be important factors in sun exposure habits and sun protection behavior.

In the U.S., skin cancer rates are much higher among men than women. Projections suggest that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime and that many cases are preventable through the simple use of sunscreen. Scandinavian countries have the highest number of skin cancer cases in all of Europe. In particular, 45,000 people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in Sweden; as a result of these rising figures, scientists there have begun to focus more attention on the disease.

Using baseline data from a previously performed randomized controlled trial on skin cancer prevention, Swedish researchers requested 415 patients over the age of 18 to fill out a questionnaire mapping sun exposure and use of sunscreen, among other factors. More frequent suntanning and sunbed use, yet also more extensive sunscreen use was reported by women. Generally, older people indicated a lower level of sun exposure and higher level of protection. The less educated reported less frequent sunscreen use than those at a higher educational level; they also chose a lower SPF. Women and those who have attained a higher educational level reported greater readiness to increase sunscreen use than men and those at a lower educational level.

Appropriate mapping of gender, age, educational level, and skin type is necessary, the researchers concluded, so that sun protection advice can be individualized according to the individual patient situation and capabilities.

American Studies

In two separate studies published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers examined the impact of an ultraviolet (UV) photography intervention on women's and college men's sun protection understanding.

After completing a baseline survey, the college men participants viewed a black-and-white photo of their face. Half also viewed a photo showing their UV damage. They then completed a second survey assessing, among other characteristics, their perceived vulnerability to skin damage, attitude toward sun protection, willingness to protect themselves from the sun, and intention to receive a skin cancer exam.

The researchers found that masculinity predicted lower perceived vulnerability to skin damage and lower willingness to protect themselves from the sun among college men.

In the second study, female participants were recruited via public advertisements and came to the lab to view a photo showing their UV damage. Some participants received instructions to focus on either their thoughts or feelings about their photograph before completing the survey.

Older women reported higher perceived vulnerability and a lower belief that they would be unlikely to develop skin cancer; plus, they took more sunscreen than younger women. Yet among those in the affect group, older women reported a greater belief that they would be unlikely to develop skin cancer and greater willingness to expose themselves to sun-risk than younger women.

Researchers suggest that UV photography is a promising intervention, especially among masculine men who responded well to its use.

The Future

A scientist from King's College London has entered into an agreement with a skincare company to develop a sunscreen based on MAAs (mycosporine-like amino acids), which are produced by coral. Having studied a few samples of the endangered Acropora coral from Australia's Great Barrier Reef, a team led by Dr. Paul Long of King's Institute of Pharmaceutical Science discovered how naturally-occurring MAAs were produced. Algae living within coral make a compound that is transported to the coral, which then modifies it into a sunscreen for the benefit of both the coral and the algae. This protects not only both of them from UV damage, but also the fish that feed on the coral.

"While MAA's have a number of other potential applications, human sunscreen is certainly a good place to begin proving the compound's features," said Long. He plans to conduct further studies in the hopes of developing a sunscreen with the broadest spectrum of protection. The next phase of development is for the researchers to test the efficacy of the compounds using human skin models.

Aethic's sunscreen was selected as the best 'host' product for the compound because of its existing broad-spectrum UVA/UVB and photo-stability characteristics and scientifically proven ecocompatibility credentials.

Previously, The Guardian reported that Long's goal is to synthesize the coral's protective components to first create a lotion to test on human skin, and then a tablet version. The BBC reports that human testing could begin soon. By swallowing a pill, you may gain protection from the sun not only for your skin but also your eyes. The pill might even be available within the next few years.

"There would have to be a lot of toxicology tests done first... Nothing like it exists at the moment," said Long. In fact, commercial sunscreens have only been around for the last 60 or so years.

In the mid-40s, a Swiss chemist, who as a student suffered a sunburn while climbing Mount Piz Buin on the Swiss-Austrian border, brought Gletscher Crème (Glacier Cream) to market under the brand Piz Buin. Around the same time the American pharmacist Benjamin Green mixed red veterinary petrolatum, cocoa butter, and coconut oil into a product that would eventually become Coppertone suntan cream. As an airman during World War II, he had used "red vet pet" to protect himself and other soldiers from ultraviolet rays.

Sources: Falk M, Anderson CD. Influence of age, gender, educational level and self-estimation of skin type on sun exposure habits and readiness to increase sun protection. Cancer Epidemiology. 2013.

Walsh LA, Stock ML. UV photography, masculinity, and college men's sun protection cognitions. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2012.

Walsh LA, Stock ML, Peterson LM, Gerrard M. Women's sun protection cognitions in response to UV photography: the role of age, cognition, and affect. Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2013.