Sunscreen, Gender norms, and Men’s Health

Samantha Brennan considers the effect of gender norms on men’s health and suggests that when it comes to health promotion, you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.


I’m the mother of two sons – teen and twenty-something sons. As I pack away tube after tube of unused sunscreen, I find myself thinking about gender norms. I check expiry dates. They’ll still be good next year. Maybe by then they’ll use sunscreen.

Generally speaking, though, boys and men don’t use sunscreen. They also pay the price for this. Boys and men between the ages of 15 and 39 are more than twice as likely to die of melanoma, than girls and women between these ages. According to the American Academy of Dermatology melanoma will kill 6,470 boys and men this year — and half as many girls and women.

The explanation as to why so many men die from melanoma relies heavily on norms around gender. Most men hate putting lotion on their skin (too girly) and aren’t big on being afraid of things (not manly). They are also more likely to have outdoor jobs and do household tasks that involve being outside. Think about lawn-mowing and BBQ-ing. They also pay less attention to their skin and so don’t catch early warning signs.


Women, generally speaking, don’t mind putting on lotions and do pay attention to changes in their skin. They wear sunscreen to avoid premature aging and wrinkles and often also wear make-up year round that contains ingredients that protect their skin from the sun.

Male socialization in this case leads to bad results for men. Women, thanks to a different set of gender norms, fare better. Maybe my boys need an Axe of the sunscreen world?

I find it amusing that sunscreen manufacturers now have sunscreens especially for tattoos, even though the Canadian Cancer Society says that any full spectrum, high SPF sunscreen will do the trick. The “just for tattoos” stuff looks cooler and I’m sure that ounce for ounce, it’s pricier. But whatever.

Sunscreen avoidance and skin cancer risk isn’t the only health problem men face. Men are also more likely to engage in risky behaviours like smoking, drinking, and driving fast cars.

On average, men have a shorter life expectancy than women and some think that we ought to be concerned about this inequality. There are a number of ways in which men’s lives lead to early deaths, high levels of stress is one of those ways, but there is also death in war time, and dangerous jobs such as mining and construction. Men are also disproportionately represented in the prison population. For more on men’s health read my blog commentary on the unsafe sex.

When thinking about inequality some people draw distinctions between inequalities that are the result of circumstance and luck, and inequalities that follow from choice. They think individuals are responsible for inequalities that are of their own choosing. Sure smokers die young, for example, but that’s a trade-off they’ve made.

It’s tempting to put men’s deaths from sun related skin cancer in that category. “Don’t be an idiot! Just wear the damn sunscreen!”

Maybe as I’m now parenting young men I can see more clearly how strong gender-role socialization is for boys and men. It’s okay to wear a helmet because “my parents are crazy when it comes helmets. They’ll ground me forever if I ride without one,” but not okay to do it because you’re worried about hitting your head and having a serious concussion.

Note that when young women acquire unhealthy habits, dieting, for example, as a result of female socialization feminists aren’t so quick to dismiss it as a matter of individual choice. Feminists can, and should, take male gender role socialization just as seriously. Indeed, I think feminism offers the best explanation of some of the inequalities that hurt men.

For example, gender norms and health promotion were the subject of Professor Kate Hunt’s opening plenary at the Feminist Approaches to Bioethics Congress in Edinburgh this June.

Hunt’s talk mentioned the gender based marketing of alcohol. Why? We all know that the average lifespan for men is lower than the average lifespan for women. Hunt began with the question, how much of the gender gap in all-cause mortality can be attributed to differential rates of tobacco use and alcohol consumption? Lots it turns out. In pretty much all countries men out smoke and out drink women. The gap between these behaviors tracks the gender gap in all-cause mortality.

Gender is made up of behavior and lots of the behavior is health-related. When it comes to health we might need to work with the gender norms we’ve got rather than wait until we’ve subverted them. If manly sunscreen is more likely to be used, then bring on the Wolverine scented 50 spf spray.


Samantha Brennan is a Professor in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research and a member of the Rotman Institute of Philosophy at Western University. @SamJaneB

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