To many men, thinking about their skin seems, well, just a little feminine. Sunscreen products seem an awful lot like cosmetics. And worrying about getting a sunburn seems a bit fussy and unmanly.
These attitudes may be part of the reason why men have higher skin cancer rates than women do.
It's estimated that about 35,000 American men will develop melanoma, the deadliest of the common forms of skin cancer, in 2008, as compared to about 27,500 women. Men also have higher rates of the less serious forms of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, than women do.
All of these cancers are related to sun exposure. It has traditionally been assumed that men had higher rates of skin cancer primarily because they were more likely than women to have outdoor jobs involving extensive sun exposure, but this may be only one of the factors contributing to their higher risk. Surveys show that men are also less likely than women to make efforts to protect themselves from the sun. For example, in one survey, 47% of men said that they never use sunscreen, but only 34% of women said the same.
Repeated surveys by the federal government's Centers for Disease Control indicate that men are more likely than women to report having been sunburned recently. In surveys conducted in 1999, 2003, and 2004, 36 to 37% of men reported having been sunburned during the previous year, but only 28 to 30% of women did. Since a history of sunburns is associated with an increased risk of melanoma, the more frequent occurrence of sunburns among men is a cause for concern.
One reason why men may be less likely to protect their skin from the sun is that they don't receive as many commercial messages about sun protection as women do. Sunscreen products are advertised primarily to women. In a 2007 study, researchers from Boston University reviewed 579 summer issues of magazines and found that 77 percent of ads for sunscreens and other sun-care products appeared in magazines that were aimed at women. Very few ads for such products appeared in outdoor recreation magazines aimed at men, even though people who participate in outdoor recreation activities are an obvious market for sun protection products.
Although differences in sun exposure and sun protection habits are probably the main reasons for the differences in skin cancer rates between men and women, it is also possible that men may be more prone to skin cancer for biological reasons. In a study conducted in a special breed of mice that have no fur on their bodies, researchers from Ohio State University found that male mice were more likely than female mice to develop skin cancer when exposed to sun lamps. The male animals got skin tumors earlier, developed more of them, and had more severe tumors. Men are not big mice, of course, but the results of this study suggest that the possibility of natural male/female differences in sun sensitivity should also be investigated in humans.