Summer means spending more time outside, and with that comes an increased risk of sunburns. For children, sunburns significantly increase the risk of melanoma (skin cancer) according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Even one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double a person’s chance of developing melanoma.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with 20% of Americans expected to develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Rates of melanoma have doubled since 1982 despite an increased use in sunscreen. The reasons for this increase are numerous, including increased use of tanning beds (especially by adolescent girls) and infrequent or improper use of sunscreen.
Protecting Your Child
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a list of things you can do as a parent to protect your child from the sun.
- Seek shade: The ultraviolet (UV) rays that cause sunburns and skin damage are strongest during the middle part of the day, so plan indoor activities during those times if possible. If not, finds some shade under a tree, umbrella, or pop-up tent. These should be used to prevent sunburn, not to seek relief after it’s happened.
- Cover up: When possible, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants or skirts. Clothes made from tightly-woven fabric offer the best protection. A wet t-shirt offers less protection than a dry one, and darker colors may offer more protection than lighter ones. Some clothing may have a UV protection factor listed based on international standards.
- Get a hat: Hats that shade the face, scalp, ears, and neck are easy to use and offer great protection. Baseball caps are popular, but don’t protect the ears and neck. If your child wears a cap, be sure to apply sunscreen to their ears, neck, and other exposed areas.
- Wear sunglasses: While sunglasses don’t protect from sunburn, if they block both UVA and UVB rays, they can protect your child’s eyes from exposure to UV rays. Such exposure can lead to cataracts later in life.
- Apply sunscreen: The CDC recommends using a broad spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreen with at least an SPF 15 rating. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends SPF 30 as a minimum. For best protection, apply sunscreen generously 30 minutes before going outside, remembering to protect the ears, nose, lips, and tops of feet. Reapply sunscreen throughout the day, especially after your child exercises or swims, even if using a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen. Combine sunscreen with the other options above to prevent the sun from damaging skin.
Other Things to Know
The CDC also provides some additional tips and information on protecting your child’s skin from the sun.
- Turning pink: Unprotected skin can be damaged in as little as 15 minutes, but it can take up to 12 hours for the skin to show the full effect of exposure. If your child looks “a little pink,” it may be a burn in a few hours. To prevent further damage, get your child out of the sun before they hit “pink.”
- Tan: As the CDC puts it, tanned skin is damaged skin. Any change in color of your child’s skin indicates damage from UV rays whether it is a suntan or a sunburn. The “healthy, tanned glow” of your childhood is now known to be an indicator of potential skin cancer in the future.
- Cool and cloudy: Just because it is cool or cloudy doesn’t mean you can’t get a sunburn. It is the sun’s UV rays that damage the skin, and clouds only slightly weaken UV rays. So be sure to use sunscreen and the other recommendations when spending time outside even on cool or cloudy days.
- Oops: Summer activities have a way of running longer than we expect—Little League games that drag on or not wanting to head home when the kids are having so much fun on the playground. Plan ahead by having additional sunscreen on hand in your car, stroller, bag, or backpack so you can reapply it when the fun doesn’t want to end.
Photo © 1985 by Erin Stevenson O’Connor under Creative Commons license.