Forget the Sunscreen? It's Free Now in Some Cities.

From coast to coast, governments are teaming up with nonprofits to fight one of the most common yet most preventable kinds of cancer.
by | June 3, 2016
People taking advantage of the free sunscreen dispensers in Miami Beach, Fla. (AP/Alan Diaz)

As people hit the hiking trails, beaches and golf courses this summer, they may spot something new: dispensers of free sunscreen.

Boston and Miami Beach, Fla., were the first to install them in public areas last year. Now, the dispensers can be seen from coast to coast.

The impetus behind the idea was the Surgeon General's call to action in 2014 to fight skin cancer. It's the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, yet one of the most preventable. The number of people diagnosed with melanoma -- which kills 9,000 a year -- has doubled from 1982 to 2011.

Public health nonprofits are so enthusiastic about the idea that they're footing most of the bill for the dispensers.

“Sunscreen is expensive, and for some people, it’s just not in their budget. Cities really should see this as a social justice and public health issue,” said Deb Girard, executive director of the Melanoma Foundation of New England.

In Boston, the Melanoma Foundation of New England gifted the city 50 sunscreen dispensers, which are placed in some of the city's most heavily trafficked parks as well as beaches outside of the city. Parks and beach staff are responsible for refilling them.

“The conversation started in May of 2015, and by July, we were up and running. It was remarkable,” said Girard.

Just a few months prior, Miami Beach kicked off the first such initiative in March 2015. There, Mount Sinai Medical Hospital invested $25,000 to put 50 free sunscreen dispensers throughout the area's public pools, parks and beaches.

Since then, Los Angeles; Manhattan Beach, Calif.; and Palm Beach County, Fla.; have started their own programs.

Palm Beach County also teamed up with its local melanoma foundation to obtain five dispensers that will be placed on fishing piers, a popular golf course, a water park and the beach. The county had already installed sunscreen dispensers in schools, so it was a simple process.

“It’s just a no-brainer for us. Eventually I think we’d like to see them at all of our water parks and pools,” said Laurie Schobelock, director of aquatics for Palm Beach County’s Parks and Recreation Department. “I had melanoma in my 20s, so this is personal for me."

While the idea to supply sunscreen to people during the summer may seem like a no-brainer, it hasn't been without its bumps.

As a “city focused on wellness,” Boston wanted its dispensers to dole out "all-natural" products, said Girard. That caused a problem: The sunscreen was so thick that it struggled to come out of the dispensers. When it did, it was often entirely too much and ended up being rubbed on statues and benches. Eventually, they perfected the product -- and the dispensers -- using a sunscreen with a higher amount of glycerin.

The Melanoma Foundation of New England has since supplied dispensers to areas of New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. But their mission doesn't stop in New England. They're also helping to protect people in parts of Georgia, Michigan and Nevada.

It will be years before cities can declare their dispensers successful or not. However, a 2004 study found that public awareness campaigns surrounding sun safety could result in a "marked benefit in decreasing the overall incidence of melanoma." Skin cancer advocates hope more cities and counties will start actively seeking out these dispensers.