When 20-year-old Sally got sunburned again for the third time on spring break, she promised herself that she would put a stop to it by addressing it as a habit! But how? she asked herself. In the past, as soon as she got back to her daily routine, she’d forget about it. She knew she had to start the habit of applying sunscreen because her father and uncle had died of melanoma.

The science behind sunscreen protection

No one questions the potential damage of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays on health.  According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. People of all ages are at risk if preventive measures are not taken, children included. “Just a few serious sunburns can increase your child’s risk of skin cancer later in life. Kids don’t have to be at the pool, beach, or on vacation to get too much sun. Their skin needs protection from the sun’s harmful UV rays whenever they are outdoors. ”

A sunscreen is an effective protection. My dermatologist, Dr. Ellen Marmur, has personal experience with skin cancer and because of that, and her long-standing love for hiking, cycling and all kinds of outdoor sports, she champions fundraising in a grand way. Along with her patients and anyone else interested, she has led her team to hikes in Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2014 and more recently, in January of this year, her “Skin Cancer Take A Hike” (SCTAH) campaign took them to the Patagonia at Torres del Paine W Trek in Chile.

Setting the stage for a habit to be born

Sally knew that she was at risk for skin cancer because of her family history. She fully intended to use sunscreen routinely but she failed to make it a habit. She didn’t know how to do that. So when she contacted me to help her create this habit, I was more than happy to help her. This was a good time to start, just before the weather gets warm and the sun’s rays become stronger. The first thing I suggested was that she buy a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15. I told her to put it next to her toothbrush and apply it once a week, regardless of the weather. What started to happen is that without her realizing it (sort of automatically), she was applying it not just one day per week but every day.

Originally, I suggested that she place the sunscreen next to her deodorant. However, that only works if she uses deodorant every day and she doesn’t. But she does brush her teeth every morning so, together, we decided that that would be a better trigger to remind her to apply sunscreen.

Reinforcing the habit for long-term success

To reinforce her behavior of applying sunscreen every morning, we incorporated three other steps:

  • One was to use a log where she could put a check mark whenever she applied the sunscreen. She would then give herself a big pat on her back to reward herself.

  • The second step was to use an accountability partner with whom she could check in once a week.

  • The third step was to use the Mantra Habit every night before going to sleep. The Mantra Habit asks that you make a statement, preferably a positive one, and that you repeat it every night for at least 30 days. The Habit Mantra requires that you repeat the mantra, emphasizing a different word of the sentence every time. Sally came up with this sentence: I will apply sunscreen every morning. Then she repeated her Habit Mantra in the following way:

    • I will apply sunscreen every morning.
    • I will apply sunscreen every morning.
    • I will apply sunscreen every morning.
    • I will apply sunscreen every morning.
    • I will apply sunscreen every morning.
    • I will apply sunscreen every morning.


Sally had a few months to learn her new routine and by the time the warmer seasons arrived she was applying sunscreen every morning, automatically, after brushing her teeth. The behavior was so ingrained that she had no difficulty remembering to re-apply sunscreen throughout the day. She had made it a habit!

Sunscreen Protection: Make it a Habit
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