Even on a cloudy day, Deb Girard lathers on sunscreen.
“I try to be a good role model,” says Girard, the executive director of IMPACT Melanoma, a nonprofit that works to increase education and reduce skin cancer.
Melanoma rates have continued to rise over the past 30 years. Cities, nonprofits and health organizations are looking for strategies to reduce that statistic.
One way is through sunscreen dispensers.
Whether it’s heading to a baseball game or walking on a public beach, free sunscreen is now available for passersby in places like the Braves stadium in Atlanta and West Palm Beach, Florida. These small, touch-free dispensers work just like the automatic hand-sanitizer dispensers that you might find in restaurants, schools and grocery stores.
The goal of these dispensers is to make sunscreen accessible, cue visual reminders to reapply and as a result, lower rates of melanoma, says Girard.
Melanoma rates are rising faster than that of any other cancer: every hour one person dies from the disease in the U.S. alone, and it’s the most common form of cancer for people between the ages of 15 and 29. It amounts to $3.3 billion in health care costs annually.
“As compared to needing treatment for skin cancer and melanoma, [dispensers] are not expensive things,” Girard says.
Melanoma is largely preventable, and the way to do that is by using sunscreen every day.
Ross Donaldson says his family has more sunscreen than the average family. “But we never seem to have it where we needed it and when we needed it.”
So he developed his own sunscreen dispenser called Sunstation USA.
If hand sanitizer dispensers are everywhere, sunscreen dispensers can be too, says Donaldson, Sunstation’s CEO. He says it felt like a simple solution that could help reduce sun cancer. “There’s a lot of research dedicated towards public sunscreen intervention programs and the results are really promising,” he says.
Melanoma rates have decreased in 23 states. In the Northeast, which is one area that has seen a decrease, sunscreen dispensers and programming, like the ones IMPACT Melanoma provides, are linked to those lowering numbers.
IMPACT Melanoma launched a program called #PracticeSafeSkin to help provide cities access to sunscreen.
“It’s challenging and somewhat exciting to work with cities and towns who are realizing that this is something they can give to their communities,” Girard says. “And that doesn’t cost a lot of money.”
In 2016, IMPACT Melanoma partnered with Brightguard, a sunscreen dispenser manufacturer, to place 10 dispensers in highly trafficked, sunny areas of Boston, where IMPACT Melanoma is based.
Since then, IMPACT Melanoma has placed about 4,000 dispensers across the country, and the nonprofit partners with public and private sponsors to provide sunscreen and education. And it’s continuing to expand its reach: in 2018, the nonprofit received two state grants in Vermont and Maine to launch a two-year project that will bring programming and 100 dispensers to each state.
Girard says these two-year projects will help the nonprofit understand how the dispensers are changing people’s perception about sunscreen.
“When we go into new communities and new hubs, we do some surveying to try to understand what awareness there is about sunscreen use and about how people in the community are using sunscreen,” Girard says. “And then our goal is, after a couple of years, to go back and survey again.”
Each dispenser and each program is slightly different, but they all have the same goal: touch-free sunscreen.
Brightguard, for example, equips each battery-powered dispenser with a 1000-milliliter bag of SPF 30 sunscreen. This supplies about 250 people with sunscreen, according to Brightguard’s website. And the sunscreen is free of parabens as well as oxybenzone, which has been linked to coral reef bleaching and hormone disruption.
One challenge has been the maintenance of the dispensers. Since most of them are in public places, it can be difficult to designate a person in charge of refilling, cleaning and maintaining them.
“With a successful program, we want somebody [maintaining] them regularly,” Girard says. “So we are working with organizations and municipalities to come up with maintenance plans.”
As cities and companies refine their approach, IMPACT Melanoma and other programs plan to expand access.
“What we’re trying to figure out is how to make it so that doing good sun protection and having good sun behavior comes naturally,” Girard says.