Military Dermatology

Skin Cancer in the US Military

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Another important factor is the impact that official policy plays in shaping the daily actions of individual military servicemembers. In a hierarchical organization such as the US Military, unit commanders have substantial authority over the behaviors of their subordinates. Thus, strategies to mitigate skin cancer risks should be aimed at the individual servicemembers and unit commanders and at a policy level. Ultimately, a 3-pronged approach built on education, access to sun-protective gear, and increased availability to sunscreen is recommended.

The foundation for any skin cancer prevention strategies should be built on the education of individual military servicemembers. The majority of active-duty members and veterans did not believe the military did enough to actively educate them on the risks for developing skin cancer.21 An effective educational program should focus on prevention and detection. Prevention programs should explain the role of UV exposure in the development of skin cancer, the intrinsic risks of UV exposure associated with outdoor activities, and strategies that can be implemented to reduce UV exposure and lifetime risk of skin cancer development. In a study of German outdoor workers, displays of support and concern by management regarding UV protection were associated with increases in sun-protective behaviors among the employees.25

Because patient self-examinations have been shown to be associated with earlier melanoma diagnosis and a more superficial depth at diagnosis, detection programs also should focus on the identification of suspicious skin lesions, such as by teaching the ABCDEs of melanoma.26 Among the general population, educational campaigns have been shown to be effective at reducing melanoma mortality.27,28

Access to Sun-Protective Gear
The second aspect of reducing skin cancer risk should be aiming to protect military servicemembers from UV exposure. Any prevention strategy must fit within the military’s broader tactical and strategic framework.

The use of photoprotective strategies rather than the outright avoidance of sun exposure should be implemented to minimize the deleterious effects of outdoor work. The most recent study of the UV-protective properties of US Military uniforms found all tested uniforms to have either very good or excellent UV protection, with UV protection factors (UPFs) ranging from 35 to 50+.29 However, this study was performed in 2002, and the majority of the uniforms tested are no longer in service. More up-to-date UPF information for existing military uniforms is not currently available. Most military commands wear baseball hat–style covers when operating outdoors, which generally provide good photoprotection with UPF ratings of 35 to 50 over the protected areas.29 Unfortunately, these types of headgear offer less photoprotection than do wide-brimmed hats, which have demonstrated improved photoprotection, particularly of the neck, cheeks, ears, and chin.30 A wide-brimmed hat, known as the boonie hat, was originally proposed for military use in 1966 to provide protection of servicemembers’ faces and necks from the intense sun of Vietnam. Currently, the use of the boonie hat typically is prohibited for units not engaged in combat or combat-support roles and requires authorization by the unit-level commander.31 Because of its perception as “unmilitary appearing” by many unit commanders and its restriction of use to combat-related units, the boonie hat is not consistently used. Increasing the use of this type of wide-brimmed hat would be an important asset in decreasing chronic UV exposure in military servicemembers, particularly on those parts of the body where skin cancer occurrence is the greatest.32 Policies should be aimed at increasing the use of the boonie hat, both through expanding its availability to troops in non–combat-related fields and by encouraging unit commanders to authorize its use in their units.

Sunscreen Availability
Improving the use of sunscreen is another impactful strategy that could be undertaken to decrease the risk for skin cancer in military servicemembers. The use of sunscreen is low in both those deployed overseas and those stationed within the United States. Improving access to sunscreen, particularly in the deployed setting, also could reduce barriers to use. Providing sunscreen directly to servicemembers, either when issuing gear or integrated within Meals Ready to Eat, could remove both the financial and logistical barriers to sunscreen utilization. Centralized troop-gathering locations, such as dining facilities, could be utilized both for the mass distribution of sunscreen and to display educational material. Unit commanders also could mandate times for servicemembers to stop work and apply sunscreen at regularly scheduled intervals.

The composition and delivery vehicle of sunscreen may have an impact on its efficacy and ease of use in the field. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends using sunscreen that is broad spectrum, sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or greater, and water resistant.33 However, the AAD does not make a recommendation of whether to use a physical sunscreen (such as titanium dioxide) or a chemical sunscreen. If applied in equal amounts, a chemical sunscreen and a physical sunscreen with an equal SPF should offer the same UV protection. However, a study in the British Journal of Dermatology showed that subjects applied only two-thirds the quantity of physical sunscreen compared to those applying chemical sunscreen, achieving approximately only one-half the SPF as provided by the chemical sunscreen.34 Because sunscreen is only effective when it is used, consideration should be given to the preferences of the military population when selecting sunscreens. A review of consumer preferences of sunscreen qualities showed that sunscreens that were nongreasy and did not leave a residue were given the most favorable rankings.35 In recent years, sunscreen sprays have become increasingly popular. When adequately applied, sprays have been shown to be equally effective as sunscreen lotions.36 However, although recommendations have been issued by both the AAD and the US Food and Drug Administration on the application of sunscreen lotion to adequately cover exposed skin, no such recommendations have been given for sunscreen sprays.33 Some safety concerns also remain regarding the flammability of aerosol sunscreens, which could be exacerbated in a combat situation.37

However, there are some obvious downsides to sunscreen use. During certain operational tasks, particularly in combat settings, it may not be feasible or even safe to stop working to apply sunscreen at the 2-hour intervals required for effective UV protection.38 Water exposure or large amounts of perspiration also would cause sunscreen to lose effectiveness earlier than expected. Logistically, it may be challenging to regularly supply sunscreen to small austere bases in remote locations.

Final Thoughts

The men and women of our armed forces already undertake great risk in the defense of our country. It should be ensured that their risk for developing skin cancer is made as low as possible, while still allowing them to successfully accomplish their mission. Multiple studies have shown servicemembers to be at an increased risk for skin cancer, particularly melanoma. We believe the primary factor behind this increased risk is occupational UV exposure, which is compounded by the suboptimal use of sun-protective strategies. By educating our servicemembers about their risk for skin cancer and promoting increased UV protection, we can effectively reduce the burden of skin cancer on our active-duty servicemembers and veterans.


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