(After you read the article, test your knowledge. Look at each picture and ask yourself what the parent could have done better to protect the child from the sun. Answers are at the end of the article.)
Just when you thought that you knew all you have to know to protect your kids from the sun, the experts tweak their recommendations. Their latest advice:
a. Sunburns are an even worse risk factor in causing severe skin damage than excessive tanning.
b. Clothing, not sunscreens, should be your first line of defense against the sun.
1. Intense, intermittent sun exposure, especially during childhood, increases considerably the risk of melanomas in adulthood. Melanomas are the most serious type of skin cancer. The worse the burn, the earlier in adulthood melanomas may occur. Rarely, they occur in teenagers. In a lifetime, two percent of the population experiences a melanoma. Such tumors are generally curable if discovered very early.
2. Skin damage from sunburns is permanent. Most sunburns in children heal in a relatively short time, have symptoms that are rarely overwhelming, and leave little or no scarring. However, the sun’s intense ultraviolet radiation on vulnerable skin causes irreversible damage to the DNA in skin cells, setting off a cascade of negative effects. Badly sunburned skin cells viewed under a microscope resemble cancer cells.
3. Risk factors for melanomas include skin type, skin moles and family history. As with all skin cancers, people with fair skin and light hair and eye color are more at risk. The risk for “normal moles” – small brown blemishes, or “beauty marks” – is extremely small. But children with large, raised, black or irregularly shaped, enlarging moles should see a dermatologist twice a year after the age of ten years. The increased incidence of melanomas within a family may be genetic or due to similar lifestyles (beach-going, for example).
4. Sunburns are frequent occurrences in children. Though there are no statistics (since most such burns are treated at home), estimates suggest that most children have at least one sunburn during childhood. One blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence almost doubles that person’s chances of developing a melanoma.
5. Tanning is unhealthy. Like sunburns, tanning also causes skin damage, including cancer, albeit the damage is generally less alarming than melanomas. Sun exposure is cumulative over a lifetime. A large percentage of lifetime sun exposure occurs during childhood, when skin is especially vulnerable to tanning (UV radiation.)
6. Skimpy attire has no place in the sun. Even present day “protective” beach apparel – white T-shirts, for example, especially when wet – provides almost no protection. Comfortable, lightweight, and stylish clothing is increasingly available. Such clothing is virtually 100% protective against UV radiation. The more skin covered by such clothing, the less need for sunscreens. Clothing at the beach may be a nuisance but so is winter clothing for the outdoors. Get used to it.
7. Sunscreens are still essential, but are no panacea. Sunscreens are rarely applied correctly. Generally, far too little is applied and is reapplied too infrequently. Applying the correct amount is expensive. Sunscreens’ effectiveness is reduced by water, perspiration, wind, humidity, and other factors. Occasionally, sunscreens cause rashes. Also, sunscreens merely slow down tanning, they do not eliminate it. But many parents believe sunscreens are totally protective, and therefore allow their children to stay in the sun for prolonged periods of time.
8. Most vacations increase sun exposure. A large percentage of vacations include time at the beach or pool. Intense, sudden exposure is especially common for children (and adults) who live in temperate climates and go on winter vacations in the tropics. The sun is more intense in the tropics. Winter vacations in snow country can cause sunburns of the face. Snow reflects almost all of the sun’s UV radiation.
9. Ibuprofen may reduce short and long term skin damage if taken immediately after excessive sun exposure. Continue weight-appropriate doses for about 48 hours. Routine sunburn treatment – ointments and compresses, for example – do not reduce long-term skin damage.
10. Miscellaneous. Get sunglasses that wrap around towards the ears to help protect the sensitive skin of the eyelids. Skin tumors occur rarely on skin not exposed to the sun. People of color are less likely than Caucasians to develop melanomas but when they do occur, the outcome is worse. The reasons: a widespread misconception that dark skinned people do not get skin cancer and melanomas are more difficult to detect in dark skin.
Answers to the Quiz:
A. In photo A, the child has no hat or sunglasses.
2. In photo B, the person is applying a sunscreen to skin that should be covered by clothing.
3. In photo C the child’s upper chest exposed to the sun.
4. In photo D, sand reflects the sun’s UV rays onto the child. A blanket over the sand would increase protection.
5. In photo E, the sunglasses should wrap around to the ears. The sunglasses look a lot like “fun glasses.”
So, how did you do on the quiz?