Lips: Study finds UV protection awareness is low

November 1, 2007

Despite the risk for lip and skin cancer, awareness of lip protection from UV rays is strikingly low, say researchers who surveyed visitors to public beaches in the Galveston, Texas, area. Only 47 percent of respondents said they used UV lip protection, compared with 78 percent who said they used UV skin protection.

National report - Awareness of the importance of lip protection from UV rays is strikingly low, despite an overall understanding of the need for skin protection. This was the conclusion of researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas.

Researchers collected 234 surveys from visitors to public beaches in the Galveston area during the summer months of 2004. The surveys show that while 78 percent of respondents reported using UV skin protection, only 47 percent said they used UV lip protection.

Among respondents using both lip and skin protection, concern about UV damage to the skin was much greater than concern about the lips (81 percent versus 61 percent, respectively; P = .0003), and a significantly higher number of women used lip protection than men (60 percent versus 20 percent).

Awareness and concern about lip protection were slightly lower among young adults under 30 years old compared with older adults, and tobacco users, who are at a heightened risk for lip cancer, had nearly equal rates of lip and skin protection as non-users.

One theory for such relatively high awareness of the need for skin protection compared with the low awareness of the need for lip protection is that photodamage to the skin is visible and sometimes painfully clear. Sun damage to the lips is often less noticeable or physically uncomfortable, says Joshua Dimmick, M.D., a dermatologist with the UTMB-Galveston and lead researcher on the study.

"Since the lips see the sun every day, there is some degree of hardening and less propensity to burn, compared with the abdomen or back," he tells Dermatology Times. "So there isn't that same negative reinforcement for the lips that you have evident on the skin."

Why lips get left out

Among those surveyed who reported being aware of the risks of lip exposure to UV but did not use protection, the most common reasons cited for not using protection were, in descending order: forgetting to bring or apply SPF materials; lack of concern; bad taste; comfort issues; and altered food and drink flavor.

Interestingly, 10 percent of male non-users cite issues of femininity.

"The cosmetics industry has recently attacked this perception with tough-appearing men using facial moisturizers. The same might work to get more men protecting their lips," Dr. Dimmick suggests.

More research needed

The researchers say the findings underscore the need for more research into the area of materials and vehicles used in lip protection. Such research hasn't traditionally been such a hot topic, however, and Dr. Dimmick suggests that the issues of lip cancer and lip protection often may be regarded as lesser components of the broader issue of skin cancer.

"I think that lip cancer issues haven't been studied quite as much because it crosses boundaries of specialties including ear, nose and throat, oral surgery and dermatology.

"So the literature is really all over the place, and there's not one particular entity that has taken on the effort to push the issue," he says.

Lip balms abound

Despite the lack of awareness of lip protection, there is no shortage of lip balm products on the market offering effective SPF protection, and many go well beyond the traditional cherry and strawberry flavors.

Blistex, for example, makes a wide variety of products with interesting flavors, including its "Herbal Answer," with the extracts of aloe, avocado, chamomile, shea butter and jojoba and an SPF of 15. And the company's "Spa Effects" line of aminobenzoic acid (PABA)-free balms, also with an SPF of 15, comes in three scent blends: "Uplifting," with grapefruit, rosemary and eucalyptus; "Renewing," with cucumber and melon; and "Relaxing," with a blend of vanilla and plum.

And DKNY, Calvin Klein and Clinique are just a few designer brands that produce special blends of lip balms for men.

Disclosure: Dr. Dimmick reports no conflicts of interest relating to this article.