“Margaritaville” singer Jimmy Buffett died this week after a long battle with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare but aggressive form of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in the United States, but there is a gender gap: Men, in other words, are far more likely to be diagnosed with it than women. They are also more likely to get melanoma, a form of skin cancer that can spread to other parts of the body, as well as die from it. This is true despite melanoma being very treatable, especially if caught early. They also have higher rates of nonmelanoma skin cancer, which includes Buffett's Merkel cell carcinoma as well as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.
Why are men more susceptible to skin cancer?
There are several factors at play that make men more susceptible to skin cancer:
Behaviors may play a role: According to the 2019 RealSelf sunscreen survey, women are significantly more likely to wear sunscreen on a daily basis, which can offer protective benefits from skin cancer. They also tend to spend less time outdoors.
“I find that since women are accustomed to taking care of their skin from a young age, they are more likely to use UV protection,” New York City-based dermatologist Howard Sobel previously told Yahoo Life. “It is normalized in our society for women to take preventative measures against skin aging, and use skin care products that include [sunscreen] and other anti-aging ingredients.”
It is worth noting that while the survey found men may wear sunscreen less often than women, it also offered some positive news — that men are more likely to reapply sunscreen when they do wear it. But they may also simply be getting more sun than women. A 2022 survey from Building H, a project that examines everyday health-related behaviors, found that women are indoors much more than men: A majority (51.8%) of men spend an hour or more per day outdoors — as compared with only 30.6% of women.
"It has also been hypothesized that other behavioral factors may impact men’s increased susceptibility to melanoma such as ... spending more time outdoors for work or recreation," Dr. Jesse Miller Lewin, told Health of the issue. "For men and women, we know that the risk factor that can be mitigated to prevent melanoma is sun exposure and protection. Avoiding sun during peak hours — 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sitting in the shade [and] wearing wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and SPF 30 or above sunscreen all help protect us from the harmful effects of the sun."
Men and women are also more likely to get skin cancer in different places, according to a 2020 study published in JAMA Dermatology. Men are more likely to get melanoma on the head, neck and torso, but women are more likely to see it on their legs. It’s possible that men are less likely to notice evidence of skin cancer than women due to location.
While this difference in where skin cancer develops may be at least partially due to clothing preferences, dermatologist Aanand Geria previously told Yahoo Life that women are “genetically prone to having more moles on the legs, while men tend to have more moles on the head, neck and torso.”
Genetics may also play a role in why women fight skin cancer better than men, with New York City-based dermatologist Joshua Zeichner previously telling Yahoo Life, “It’s thought that the hormone estrogen actually increases the body’s immune response against melanoma.”
Then there's the fact that male skin has different characteristics than female skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, males have thicker skin with less fat beneath, as well as more firming collagen and elastin — traits that research has shown make skin more likely to be damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Ultimately, while men may be at higher risk of skin cancer, it’s important for everyone, regardless of biological sex, to protect themselves from the sun.
Dr. Michele Farber of the Schweiger Dermatology Group previously told Yahoo, "I always tell patients that the best sunscreen is the one they'll wear. Many fun sunscreens are more wearable, easier to apply or exciting to use, so they encourage sunscreen use. With that said, it's important to use enough sunscreen for proper coverage and choose a product that is at least SPF 30 — higher is better — and broad spectrum."
It’s also important to know your body, Dr. Shari Lipner previously explained to Yahoo Life. “Perform self-skin checks monthly and see a board-certified dermatologist for any new or changing spots on the skin,” she said.