Why Are Men More Likely to Get Skin Cancer?

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Photo: Marilyn Barbone/Shutterstock

Think sun damage and skin cancer, and your thoughts probably go to high-school girls and tanning beds, or maybe those Jersey Shore kids. But last week, Acting Surgeon General Dr. Boris Lushniak issued a call to action on skin cancer that was aimed at all Americans, urging us to bone up on our sun-safety knowledge. Buried in the report is something that might surprise you — skin cancer rates are rising for everyone, but one group is at particularly high risk of both developing and dying from the disease: men. 

Since the mid-1970s, skin-cancer rates in both men and women have spiked, but the pace is especially astonishing for men, whose rates of developing melanoma have increased 150 percent since 1975, as The New Republic points out. 

Photo: U.S. Department Of Health and Human Services

Guys between the ages of 15 to 39 are more than twice as likely to die of melanoma as compared to their female peers, and the American Academy of Dermatology estimates that this year, melanoma will kill 6,470 men — and half as many women.

Dermatologists believe that the gender disparity in skin-cancer diagnoses and deaths can be explained by both behavioral and biological factors. Speaking broadly, men might be more inclined to ignore matters of dermatological health or skin care, which tend to be seen as feminine. Or, as New York City dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz phrased it, “Guys don’t like applying schmear anywhere, but particularly to their face.”

Women — again, speaking broadly — may be more used to applying lotions and caring for their skin, if only because it’s something they’re socialized to pay attention to at a young age. And to add to the female advantage, SPF is now routinely added to moisturizer, foundation, and BB creams, making sun protection an invisible step in the self-care process for many women.

There’s a dearth of scientific literature zeroing in on men and sun-safety behavior, but a 2012 survey by The Skin Cancer Foundation (done in partnership, we should note, with sunscreen brands Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic) brought to light some interesting findings. First, nearly half of the men surveyed said they hadn’t used sunscreen at all in the past year. And even when men do use sunscreen, many don’t use enough; nearly 80 percent of men didn’t know how much sunscreen to use. And if sun damage does start to take hold, most men won’t recognize it; 70 percent of men didn’t know the warning signs of skin cancer. “They’re not using it,” said Schultz, who is a spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation. “They’re not using enough. And then when things get rough and things start to happen … they’re clueless about the warning signs they should be looking for.”

More broadly, men are actually more likely to die from all forms of cancer, statistics show, and sociologist Lisa Wade  points out that “some scholars argue that being male is the single strongest predictor of whether a person will take health risks.” Take this, from an abstract for a 2010 paper published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice:

In [the] United States, men are more likely to be regular and heavy alcohol drinkers, heavier smokers who are less likely to quit, non-medical illicit drug users, and are more overweight compared to women. Men are less likely to utilize health care visits to doctor's offices, emergency departments (ED), and physician home visits than women. They are also less likely to make preventive care, hospice care, dental care visits, and have fewer hospital discharges and shorter hospital stays than women.

The authors go so far as to argue that these factors may explain the gender disparity in life expectancy; the most recent figures show that women in the U.S. can expect to live to age 81, whereas guys are expected to reach age 76. (Married men do tend to be slightly healthier than unwedded guys, and some researchers argue that’s because their significant others goads them into visiting the doctor.)

But not only are men at higher risk for getting skin cancer — once the sun damage sets in, men may be at a biological disadvantage compared to women, Schultz said. One recent study found that white men are 55 percent more likely to die of melanoma than white women, even after adjusting for tumor size and location. That suggests that some not-yet-understood biological factors may be compounding the behavioral ones, Harvard Medical School dermatologist Dr. David Fisher and Harvard School of Public Health Lecturer Alan Geller wrote in an editorial accompanying that study.

Advocates and researchers are currently trying to figure out how to better get the message across to dudes that they really need to slather on the SPF, and last week Wade came across an unlikely solution: the marketing teams that create what Wade calls “pointlessly gendered products.” Usually, Wade writes about such products — like gendered packages of mixed nuts, glue sticks, and even vegetables — with a mixture of snark and incredulousness. But when she came across Banana Boat sunscreen for men last week, she couldn’t help but write a “reluctant defense” of the product.

“Sunscreen is a category of lotion and so putting on sunscreen is equivalent to admitting you’re the sun’s bitch,” she writes. “In fact, thanks in part to the stupid idea that lotion carries girl cooties, men are two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with skin cancer. So, fine, dudes, here’s some sunscreen for men. For christ’s sake.”