If you walk along South Beach right now, you might notice something strange, even by Florida standards: Dotting the sandscapes are sky-blue boxes that supply free sunscreen. In a novel experiment this year, Mount Sinai Medical Center partnered with the City of Miami Beach to put 50 dispensers in public spaces, and those dispensers are full of radiation-mitigating goo, free to any and all passersby. The sunscreen even comes with local celebrity endorsements: “I have a bottle of Miami Beach SPF 30 on my desk,” Mayor Philip Levine told Forbes. “It’s a great product. I’ve used it.”
And it’s the kind of sunscreen that’s actually supposed to be effective at preventing cancer and premature aging (of the skin): Broad-spectrum, water resistant, and SPF 30. Those are the three characteristics that the American Academy of Dermatology now recommends in a sunscreen. But most people don’t know that, and end up wasting money, confidence, and skin. When it comes to sunscreen, people are getting burned—by ignorance. Also, by the sun.
Barraged by untold drugstore products and cosmetic industry marketing, confusion ends up costing not just money but lives, according to Roopal Kundu, an associate professor of dermatology at Northwestern University. This week she and colleagues shed some light (not too much) on just how misunderstood sunscreen is. After polling patients at their Chicago clinic, the dermatologists reported that only 43 percent knew what SPF ratings actually mean. Preventable skin cancer kills thousands every year, but the number-one reason people said they use sunscreen was not because they care about cancer, but because they care about burns. And only 7 percent knew what to look for on a label if they want a product that is actually proven—among the many products making similar claims—to protect against premature aging (of the skin).
For example, the sunscreen being dispensed in Miami is labeled as “Infused With Triple Acting Sea Kelp.” I reached out to the manufacturer for some clarification on what the hell that means, and they sent a press statement: “The sea kelp offers unique benefits of helping to restore proteins and minerals lost in the sun, firming the appearance of the skin and helping to protect against photo-aging with its natural sunscreen properties.” Living kelp does release iodides to protect itself from exposure at low tide, and phlorotannins to help absorb UV-B. But I find no evidence to support the assertion that kelp is an effective ingredient in human sunscreen. I've also never seen a sunburned sea kelp! Snare drum. Anyway, I think it’s important to have fun with science.