Sun Safety Tips
Just two severe sunburns before the age of 18 can increase a child's risk of developing skin cancer later in life.
"A child's immune system and cell repair mechanisms eventually will be compromised after repeated sunburns and tans, just like in adults," says Dr. Denise Metry, chief of the dermatology clinic at Texas Children's Hospital and assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. "Their bodies are unable to catch and destroy damaged cells, which can later grow exponentially and turn into skin cancer."
Types of Skin Cancer
There are three types of skin cancer. Squamous-cell and basal cell carcinomas are cancers that often occur on areas of the skin that are regularly exposed to the sun, including the face, the back of the hands and the ears. The third and most dangerous type is melanoma, which is a cancer that begins in the skin and can spread to other parts of the body.
"Melanoma is one of the fastest growing types of cancer in the U.S., with the number of cases doubling in the last 20 years," says Dr. ZoAnn Dreyer, director of Texas Children's Cancer Center's long-term survivor program and associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. "Several thousand people die each year from the disease. On average, children and adolescents get three times as much sun radiation as adults do and need special protection."
However, this does not mean keeping children inside all day to avoid the ultra-violet (UV) rays says Dr. Metry. It means being smart about the sun and practicing healthy habits.
Tips for Avoiding Skin Cancer
Texas Children's specialists remind parents about the harmful effects of the sun's rays and provide these tips:
- Be a role model. Practice smart sun safety yourself so your children have a model for their behavior.
- Start early in a child's life. Start teaching children about sun safety early in life so it becomes a habit.
- Keep sunscreen handy. Pack a bottle of sunscreen in your child's backpack or carry some in your purse or in your pocket. Keep a bottle in the car.
- Talk to your kids about the sun and UV exposure. Explain the dangers of not being smart about the sun. Point out people who have sun-damaged skin.
"Remember that you can't rely totally on sunscreen for your children's sun protection," says Dr. Metry. "It should be one part of their sun-protection program, along with wearing protective clothing, avoiding the midday sun (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.) and checking the ultra-violet (UV) index."
Sun Safety 101
Children with the following characteristics are particularly prone to skin cancer. These characteristics include:
- A fair to light complexion
- A family history of skin cancer
- History of sunburns early in life
- Freckles (an indicator of sun sensitivity and sun damage)
- Atypical moles or a large number of moles
Sunburns and overexposure to the sun have been found to compromise the immune system, reducing the body's ability to fight infections and disease.
Find hats with brims for children to wear in the sun. Baseball caps leave the neck and ears exposed. Loose-fitting clothing made from a tightly-woven fabric is a good choice. For children who are particularly sensitive, special clothing is available, which blocks out nearly all UV rays. A laundry additive called SunGuard also is available that lasts for 20 washings and provides an SPF of 30.