Couples-focused interventions to increase sun protection behaviors show promising results in a recent pilot study
Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, a day to share with the one you love. And while couples mark the occasion in different ways (flowers and chocolate, Netflix and takeout) it’s also an opportunity to work together to ensure a healthy life.
Many of us already support and encourage healthy behaviors with our partners (think regular checkups and eating right), but new research suggests that your relationship can also play a key role in skin health. A study out of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey shows promising evidence that when couples team up as “Sun Safe Partners,” it leads to improved sun protection attitudes and habits.
A Partner in Protection
A pilot clinical trial recruited 75 married (or cohabiting) couples through Facebook ads to receive an online intervention. The pairs were instructed to complete four modules, which included educational information on things like skin cancer risk factors, sunscreen ingredients and the different types of ultraviolet rays. Couples were also asked to create and track individual sun protection goals and received home assignments like discussing the relationship benefits of proper sun protection and comparing skin cancer risk factors with their partners. Afterward, each couple completed follow-up surveys to gauge their post-intervention behaviors (to compare with a baseline survey taken at the start of the study).
Study lead author Sharon Manne, PhD, says her work has always focused on relationships and illness, and couple-focused interventions specifically with cancer patients. Manne says the idea for Sun Safe Partners was a marriage between her specialty in couple-focused interventions and a long-standing personal interest in sun protection. She believes many people don’t pay their skin the attention it deserves in terms of protecting it from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
“Sun protection is something people don’t naturally think about unless it’s a sunny day,” she says. “They might think it’s cold, so they don’t need protection that day. They don’t form habits.”
Since daily, year-round sun protection can help lower your risk of skin cancer, studying how to get people to change their behaviors is especially important for this disease. Manne believes that couples may be in a unique position to help each other. Looking at how interventions work between couples shows how strategies may work in real life scenarios.
“Interventions happen in a socialized environment and within families,” she says. “Couples often share an environment, diet and physical activity. Sunscreen can be purchased and put on by a spouse, and they can influence clothing decisions and where you go on vacation.”
Does it Take Two for Sun Protection?
The goal of the study was to not only reduce individual barriers to sun protection but also help the couples build a communal support system for sun protection. During the intervention, couples reported if they had done things like “encourage my spouse to apply sunscreen” and ranked how strongly they agreed with statements like “I wear sunglasses when I go outside because it is important to my spouse that I do so.”
The results were promising, according to Manne. “We were surprised how many couples utilized the intervention materials,” she says. “It was a relatively high rate of engagement, and a lot of the time people will not even open interventions. They might download an app and not use it. But the majority of the people here actually had discussions with their partners.”
More than two-thirds of the participants completed all four Sun Safe Partners modules. Results showed a small-to-moderate increase in couples’ sun protection behaviors after intervention, and findings were encouraging in terms of couples’ ability to view sun protection from a relational perspective. While many participants reported attempts to help their partner adopt sun protection behaviors, Manne notes that there is still work to be done with a larger scale study. The team aims to conduct a full-powered randomized trial with a larger, more diverse sample set. They plan to get information out to the public in different ways (like developing an app) to attract more study participants.
“Our goal is to improve quality of life,” Manne says. “We want to increase the interest in sun protection and skin cancer, and make sure people don’t take their skin for granted.”
This Valentine’s Day, whether you celebrate with chocolates, flowers, Netflix or takeout, think about working with your partner to develop good sun protection and skin cancer prevention habits. It’s a healthy commitment you’ll never regret!