The sun does to skin what tobacco smoke does to lungs, frequently causing serious health issues, including cancer, decades later. Moreover, the concept that wrinkling and other skin damage is merely a normal consequence of aging is wrong. Much of the damage is due to excessive sun exposure – and is preventable.
1. The younger the child, the greater the risk. Young children burn rapidly. Their skin contains less melanin to neutralize the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. Severe sunburns early in life further increase the chances of cancer. Children spend more time outdoors and with increasing longevity have ever more years of sun exposure ahead of them.
2. Rethink your approach to protecting children. Sufficient information is available that, when used correctly and consistently through childhood, will reduce the risk of sun-related skin cancer by about 80%. For example, there is no such thing as a healthy tan. Tans do not reflect vigor and fitness. Each tan is a mild sunburn and contributes to lifetime damage. Tans provide little protection from subsequent sunburns.
3. Damage does not occur only at the beach. Damage is cumulative. Think sun protection every time children go outside. Cool weather does not lessen the intensity of the sun. Have an umbrella on your stroller. Minimize outdoor activities between 10 AM and 2 PM. Look for shady places for children to play.
4. Sensible sun protection calls for covering up, not stripping down. Steps parents take at the beach to protect children are woefully inadequate. A white cotton T-shirt has a sun protection factor (SPF) of about 7 when dry and 5 when damp; generally, wetness reduces the SPF by about one-third. (An SPF of 15 is considered minimum protection.) A dry white polyester polo shirt has an SPF of about 31 but when stretched across the shoulders its SPF drops to about 10.
5. Clothing is the prime defense against the sun. Ideally, “sun-proof” clothing consists of dark-colored, tightly woven long pants and long sleeve shirts that cover shoulders and the back of the neck. Hold garments up to the light; the less you can see through them, the better. Dark blue denim is “sun-proof” but such items tend to be uncomfortable in hot weather and are not stylish, making even toddlers reluctant to wear them.
6. “Sun-proof” garments that are reasonably comfortable in hot weather are now available. You can find them on the web, in catalogs, in stores selling clothing for camping/ outdoors, and, increasingly, in stores that sell regular clothing. Many bear labels stating their SPF number. Effective garments are loose-fitting, lightweight, come in popular colors, are well vented, dry rapidly when wet, and have SPFs of 50 or more, blocking virtually all the damaging ultraviolet rays.
7. Any old hat won’t do. Some straw hats have SPFs of less than 6. Baseball caps shield the forehead and part of the nose from the sun but not the lower face, ears, and neck. Ideally, hats should have a four- to five-inch brim extending around the entire circumference. And even such hats do not shield the face from UV radiation reflected up from water, sand, concrete, and white-painted surfaces.
8. Many vacation-linked activities involve increased sun exposure. On most vacations more time is spent outdoors, sometimes at higher altitude or at beaches. The higher the altitude, the stronger the sun; there is less atmosphere to filter out the damaging rays. A winter vacation in the tropics is especially sun-intensive. Tans from the previous summer that might provide some small degree of protection are gone, making skin especially vulnerable to rapid burning. About 70% of UV radiation penetrates the top 12 inches of clear water, making swimmers’ backs vulnerable.
9. Getting out of the sun means more than just not seeing the sun. Sitting in the shade under a large leafy tree provides far more protection than being in the shade of a building with the sky visible above. Fluffy white clouds reduce radiation merely 20%. Large beach-type umbrellas are helpful depending where they are placed – but not particularly so on the beach. The shade of a beach umbrella may decrease radiation by only 50%. White sand reflects most of the radiation reaching it, and water, depending on the angle of the sun, waves, and other factors, reflects up to 80%. Reflected radiation is particularly harmful because it is additive to direct radiation. Choose to sit on ground covered by grass or dirt rather than sand when possible.
10. Individuals with dark/black skin are not immune from sun damage. Such individuals do have a far lower incidence of sun-related issues than fair-skinned, light-eyed, red- or blond-haired people. However, because of the erroneous belief that sun-related skin damage/cancer does not affect dark/black skinned individuals, such problems are less often looked for, and when looked for, much more difficult to detect.