Boston’s sticky sunscreen problem

The city’s free sunscreen program is still working out the kinks.

Five parks around the city now carry these bright yellow free sunscreen dispensers.
Five parks around the city now carry these bright yellow free sunscreen dispensers. –Melanoma Foundation of New England

When Boston agreed to a pilot program that would put free sunscreen dispensers in city parks last month, the Melanoma Foundation of New England decided to use an organic sunscreen.

Deb Girard, executive director of the MFNE, said she knew some people would be wary of using a sunscreen with too many chemicals. Putting organic sunscreen in public parks, then, would ensure nobody objected to applying the protective cream on themselves and their children.

Within a couple weeks of the new dispensers being placed around the city, they discovered a problem: The organic sunscreen wouldn’t come out.

“While we tested before we went out, what happened was the sunscreen was clogging because it was thick,’’ Girard said. “The problem is the sunscreen was too thick for this particular configuration.’’

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Because of that, all of the sunscreen dispensers are now being replaced by a heavier-duty version. Those replacements should arrive by Friday, Ryan Woods of the Boston Parks Department said.

That dispenser issue was one of the “growing pains’’ of the city’s free sunscreen program, Girard said, which is still in its very early stages. The entire program is free for Boston, and is supported by donations and sponsors to the Melanoma Foundation of New England.

Boston has functioned as a guinea pig for the broader free sunscreen movement, which was spurred by the Surgeon General’s call to take action on skin cancer and melanoma last fall. In March, Miami Beach became the first city to put out free sunscreen for its citizens. A month later, Boston city councillor Matt O’Malley filed a proposal for Boston to do the same.

“We’ve gotten more conversation going around the country about it,’’ said Woods, who has fielded calls from departments in other states asking how the program is going.

Though it may seem strange for Boston to worry about the sun, New England states have some of the highest melanoma and skin cancer rates in the country. That’s largely because of the high concentration of white people, whose skin color makes them more susceptible to sunburns and skin cancer, according to the CDC. About 3.5 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer every year.

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Boston’s free sunscreen program could soon spread across the state, too. The Melanoma Foundation of New England has been working with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation to take the sunscreen dispensers statewide.

There are still basic issues Girard and the foundation plan to address.

On a trip to observe how people were using the sunscreen, she noticed parents failing to apply sunscreen to the faces and ears of their “squirming little kids.’’ In addition, many parents put sunscreen on their children but not on themselves.

“We were thinking intuitively that everybody knows how to put sunscreen on, but they don’t,’’ Girard said. As such, the MFNE is planning to put instructions and illustrations on the dispensers to educate the public.

“It’s just been a really cool project, in spite of having a couple of growing pains,’’ Girard said. “I’m feeling like we’re going to work that out and it’s going to continue to be a great project.’’

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