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The psychology of skincare: A behavioral scientist shares his sun protection secrets

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Ah, summer.

The sand, the surf, the sun … and the sunburns.

The fact of the matter is that while we all know it’s important to wear sunscreen to avoid getting sunburns (and skin cancer and wrinkles), even the well-intentioned among us can slip up and forget to reapply sunscreen—or even put it on at all when heading outdoors.

You may think: I put some on this morning. What’s another hour? Or: I’m young. My chances of getting skin cancer are slim.

It’s this very thinking that can lead to burns—the after-effects of which can lead to skin cancer.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. With a little mindset reboot, you can learn to stick to healthy summer skincare habits.

That’s why we sat down with Matthew Miller, Manager of Behavior Science for Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions, for some insight on how research-backed behavioral strategies can help you consistently get your SPF on.


Proper sunscreen use is more ingrained in our culture today than it was in past generations. Despite this, it seems that there’s still confusion about how to use sunscreen. Why do you think this is?


Matthew Miller: Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) instituted new labeling requirements in 2011 to make information clearer to consumers, many people still struggle to accurately translate sunscreen labels—particularly regarding a sunscreen’s ability to prevent cancer, sunburn and skin aging.

The terms SPF, UVA, UVB and “broad spectrum” still appear to be problematic for the average consumer. This misinterpretation can lead to several user errors, such as people buying the wrong type of sunscreen, applying too little and doing so on too infrequent a basis.

Confusing labels are part of the problem, along with confusion around the efficacy of specialty sunscreens. One example of this is when sunscreens are depicted as “waterproof”—in fact, all sunscreens are only water- or sweat-resistant. “Water-resistant” sunscreen needs to be reapplied after 40 minutes of swimming, while “very water-resistant” can last up to 80 minutes.


What are some common misperceptions that people have about skin cancer?


Here are a few that come to mind:

“Only the elderly get skin cancer.”
Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is among the most common cancers experienced by young adults in the U.S.—with rates rising dramatically over the past 20 years. One person in the U.S. dies every 52 minutes from melanoma, and over 10,000 Americans are estimated to die from it in 2016.“A sunburn every once and a while isn’t that big of a deal.”
Getting a painful sunburn just once every two years can actually triple your risk of developing melanoma.

“If I have dark or olive skin, I won’t get skin cancer.”
Although data shows people with fair skin tones are more susceptible to skin cancer, all skin tones are at risk. Everyone needs to use sunscreen.

“I’m sitting under an umbrella, so I don’t need sunscreen.”
A recent Johnson & Johnson study showed that shade produced by a beach umbrella may not provide sufficient sun protection, since diffused UV rays can still reach the skin through angles not covered by an umbrella. Even under shade, you should always use sunscreen.

“Skin cancer isn’t that common. I probably won’t get it.”
On average, more than 350 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every hour. More people have had skin cancer in the past 30 years than all other types of cancer combined. The good news is that it’s one of the few cancers that’s preventable. In a recent survey of more than 500 leading dermatologists, virtually all (99%) agreed that regular use of sunscreen can help lower skin cancer risk.


From a behavioral standpoint, why do you think some people don’t wear sunscreen even though they know they should?


For one thing, studies show that individuals who frequently experience negative effects of unprotected sun exposure (think burns) are the most likely users of sun protection techniques, while people who perceive sun exposure as not harmful often believe themselves to be at a lower risk for skin cancer and do not wear sunscreen regularly.

Some skincare behaviors are influenced by social, cultural and familial norms. Others are a result of a lack of facts or an inability to apply the information received.

Did you know the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends using SPF 30 or greater, and reapplying it after every two hours in the sun and after swimming, sweating or toweling off? That’s a fairly challenging request even for the most diligent people.


It can be tough to get sunscreen on a kid. How can parents instill good sun protection habits?


Because children often swim, play in water and sweat while out in the sun, they are particularly at risk for sun damage. Research shows that when parents—mothers, in particular—model a positive habit, such as daily sunscreen use for children at an early age, that behavior can become a lifelong healthy habit.

You can also make applying sunscreen fun by turning it into a game and adding in rewards for correct and timely application of sunscreen.

RELATED: Watch Kristen Bell give pointers on having “The Talk” about sunscreen with your kids


What words of advice do you have for people who may need extra motivation to develop a consistent and effective sun protection routine?


There is no better time than now to take care of your skin in a way that works well for you. So think about the methods you most prefer–wide-brimmed hat, polarized sunglasses, protective clothing, an array of different sunscreen types–then purchase the items that work best for your lifestyle.

And if remembering to use skin protection products is a challenge, I would advise a person to first find an overarching purpose in life that motivates healthy skin care behaviors. For instance, I aspire to be alive and well in my 80s. To make playing with my grandkids in 40 years a reality, I need to take care of my skin today.

Set yourself up for success to establish an effective suncare routine by figuring out strategies that work for you. Personally, I try to be prepared for unexpected instances of UVR exposure by keeping extra sunscreen, hats, and sunglasses in my car. (Just keep in mind that hot storage environments cause sunscreen to expire faster, so park in a shady spot.) I also ask my wife to remind me to wear sunscreen anytime I go running. And I pay attention to the role models in my life who regularly practice healthy skincare behaviors.

Remember: Your future self will be grateful you took the time to apply sunscreen today. You’re worth it.

Matt Miller is the Manager of Behavior Science for Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions. Previously, he worked as a mental health clinician and the Chief Behavior Science Officer at Perk Health in Minneapolis. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota.

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