Parents, do you know there’s no such thing as a healthy tan? That bronze glow brought on by fun in the sun is actually a sign of skin damage, even if the glow comes from an indoor tanning booth. Protection from the full force of the sun today can save a child from wrinkles in middle age, cataracts, and skin cancer, a form of cancer that is on the rise in children 19 and younger.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that every sunburn in childhood increases the likelihood of skin cancer development in days to come. Even a rosy pink glow is cause for alarm. It only takes about 15 minutes of direct sunshine to damage unprotected skin and the damage progresses long after sun exposure is over. Pink skin today often turns into tomorrow’s painful burn.
A 2013 study published in the medical journal, Pediatrics, revealed a 2% rise per year in cases of childhood and adolescent melanoma between 1973 and 2009. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, remains rare for kids but girls, teens 15 to 19, and kids with pale skin, eyes, and hair are at highest risk. Boys are more likely to develop melanomas on the face and truck and girls more likely on the hip, legs, and feet. Kids with moles or birthmarks, especially those that look like raised red patches (nevi), are more prone to skin cancer, too.
Tips for a lifetime of sun safety
The good habits we develop during childhood are likely to follow us through life. When kids learn the value of sun protection at an early age, they are likely to continue sun safety for a lifetime. Incorporate these tips for sun safety in the great outdoors:
- Avoid mid-day sun. Schedule outdoor activities before 10:00 AM and after 4:00 PM. Make sure there’s plenty of shade when mid-day outdoor activities can’t be avoided.
- Beware cloudy days. Ultraviolet (UV) rays — the sun’s burning rays — penetrate the clouds so sun protection needs to be used when outdoors even on not-so-sunny days.
- Automobile windows do not block the sun’s harmful rays so make sure windows are screened or infant and child car safety seats are situated far enough away from windows so a child won’t get burned.
- Apply sunscreens liberally 30 minutes before going outside and again after two hours in the sun. Re-apply every time after getting wet or sweaty.
- Look for sunscreens in the SPF 15 to SPF 50 range. Anything less than SPF 15 won’t work as effectively and protection maxes out after SPF 50 so higher SPF numbers cost more without providing additional protection.
- The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization devoted to safety in consumer products, publishes an annual sunscreen guide. Its 2015 report identifies false product claims or unsafe ingredients in 80% of the 1,700 product it tested, including moisturizers and lip balms that list SPF. It also publishes safety tips and a list of recommended products for sun bunnies of all ages.
- Long sleeves and long pants or skirts offer some protection, especially those made from tightly woven fabrics.
- Hats are excellent protection as long as they shade the head, face, neck, and ears. Caps offer minimal protection so apply sunscreen to face, ears, and neck when wearing a cap in the sun.
- Sunglasses protect the eyes from glare now and from blindness later. Look for age-appropriate kid-size sunglasses that wrap around the entire eye and offer 100% UVA and UVB protection.
It’s a good idea to check with your child’s school policy on sunscreens; these policies vary widely. Some schools consider sun-protection products medicines that must be applied by the school nurse while others consider sunglasses and hats a violation of dress codes. Others, however, consider outdoor activities the perfect opportunity to teach students the value of sun protection.
- "How Can I Protect My Children from the Sun?" CDC: Skin Cancer. US Department of Health & Human Services, 24 June 2014. Web. 8 June 2015.
- Wong, Jeannette R, et al. "Incidence of Childhood and Adolescent Melanoma in the United States: 1973–2009." Pediatrics 131.5 (2014). Web. 8 June 2015.
- "Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens." EWG / EWG's Guide to Sunscreens. EWG, 2015. Web. 8 June 2015.