Mon. Jul 22nd, 2024

What Gen Z gets wrong about sunscreen

Two new surveys suggest a troubling trend: Young adults seem to be slacking on sun safety.

In an online survey of more than 1,000 people published this month by the American Academy of Dermatology, 28% of 18- to 26-year-olds said they didn’t believe suntans caused skin cancer. And 37% said they wore sunscreen only when others nagged them about it.

In another poll, published this month by Orlando Health Cancer Institute, 14% of adults younger than 35 believed the myth that wearing sunscreen every day is more harmful than direct sun exposure. While the surveys are too small to capture the behaviors of all young adults, doctors said they’ve noticed these knowledge gaps and riskier behaviors anecdotally among their younger patients, too.

To some extent, experts said, this issue isn’t unique to the current generation of young adults. “There’s a component of young people just being young people,” said Dr. Melissa Shive, a dermatologist at UCI Health in Irvine, California. One survey conducted between 1986 and 1996 found that then-18-to-24-year-olds (who are now middle-aged) were more likely than older adults to visit tanning booths and get sunburns.

Young adults are often unaware of what sun damage looks like and how best to prevent it, Shive said. She said she recently saw a young patient who didn’t know tan skin and freckles were signs of sun damage. Dr. Heather Rogers, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Washington, said more of her young patients now report visiting tanning beds. Ultraviolet rays — whether from tanning beds or direct sunlight — can damage skin and cause skin cancer, which can be deadly.

Older adults who participated in the recent surveys didn’t have perfect sun safety knowledge, either: 17% of millennials surveyed by AAD didn’t know tanning caused skin cancer, for instance. But on the whole, younger adults — most of whom fell into Gen Z, meaning they were born after 1997 — were more likely to report believing sun safety myths.

Experts said that Gen Z is uniquely susceptible to misinformation about sunscreen and skin cancer that has proliferated on social media platforms such as TikTok. They pointed to posts from influencers who claim incorrectly that sunscreen can cause cancer, or from celebrities who claim that they don’t use sunscreen because it interferes with vitamin D absorption. (Years of scientific evidence supports sunscreen’s benefits in preventing skin cancer, Shive said.)

“The problem with social media is that nobody’s fact-checking what’s out there,” said Dr. Ida Orengo, chair of the dermatology department at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“It can help get information out there about preventing skin cancer, but it can also do the exact opposite and make things worse,” she said.

The Orlando Health poll found nearly one-quarter of respondents younger than 35 believed that staying hydrated prevents sunburn. (There is no evidence that it can do so.) In the AAD survey, more than one-quarter of people ages 18 to 26 believed getting a base tan could prevent skin cancer, even though any tan damages skin cells, Rogers said.

How should young people protect their skin?

Most sun safety recommendations are the same for people of all ages, Shive said. And anyone can get sunburns and skin cancer, so the advice applies regardless of skin color, said Dr. Meredithe McNamara, an assistant professor of pediatrics specializing in adolescent medicine at the Yale School of Medicine.

  • Seek out shade. If you’ll be in the sun for an extended period, Rogers recommended an umbrella. Shade is most important between roughly 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is most intense, Orengo said.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing. Long sleeves and pants help protect your skin, especially if they’re made of materials with an ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF, rating, Shive said. Wide-brimmed hats are a good idea, too.
  • Generously apply — and reapply — sunscreen. UV rays can damage skin even when it’s cloudy or chilly, so experts recommend wearing sunscreen every day. The ideal sunscreen is at least SPF 30 and is labeled “broad spectrum,” Rogers said. This means it blocks both types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB.

    Apply sunscreen every morning before leaving the house. If you’re outside, Shive said you should reapply it every two hours, or more often if you’re sweating or swimming.

  • Check your skin. Primary care doctors or dermatologists can examine a patient’s skin during annual checkups, McNamara said. But if you spot an unusual mole — one that’s asymmetrical, has an uneven border or unusual color, is larger than a quarter-inch or is changing rapidly — Orengo suggested seeing a dermatologist right away.
  • Think of skin protection as a retirement fund. Dr. Clara Curiel-Lewandrowski, a dermatologist at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, offered one Gen Z-specific tip: Approach sun protection like “an investment in your future health.” The more you shield your skin when you’re young, the better protected you’ll be against skin cancer and against the wrinkles and spots that come from sun exposure later in life.

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