It is well known that exposure to UV radiation from the sun or indoor tanning devices is a primary cause of skin cancer – the most common form of cancer in the US. What appears to be less well known is the risk UV radiation can pose to children, with a recent survey revealing that 1 in 5 parents are unaware that their children’s skin is sensitive to the sun.
According to Dr. Lisa Chipps, assistant clinical professor of the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), director of dermatologic surgery at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, skin cancer is primarily viewed as a disease of adulthood, meaning many parents may not consider their child is at risk.
There is currently no registry or database that tracks cases of skin cancer among children in the US, but a 2013 study published in the journal Pediatrics found the rate of melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – rose 2% annually among children aged 0-19 between 1973 and 2009.
Though a diagnosis of skin cancer is rare during childhood, excessive sun exposure at a young age can increase the risk of skin cancer later in life. Last year, MNT reported on a study revealing that multiple sunburns during adolescence can raise the risk of melanoma by 80%.
“Overexposure to the sun and sunburns that happen during childhood are important and preventable risk factors for developing skin cancer as an adult,” says Dawn Holman, a behavioral scientist in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told MNT. “This is why it’s so important for us all to use sun protection at every age.”
However, as the aforementioned survey revealed, many parents seem to be unaware that the sun poses a risk to their child’s skin. That same survey – conducted by Nivea Sun – also found that more than half of parents are unaware that multiple sunburns cause long-lasting damage to their child’s skin, while 77% do not think pink or sore skin necessarily indicates sun damage.
In this Spotlight, we look at the best ways to protect children of all ages against the damaging effects of UV (ultraviolet) radiation and look at ways to overcome some of the major challenges that threaten children’s sun safety.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, infants aged 6 months and under should be kept out of direct sunlight. This is because they have low levels of melanin in their skin – the substance that gives pigment to the skin, hair and eyes and protects against the sun – meaning they are very sensitive to UV radiation.
As such, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommend that parents take their infant for walks in a stroller with a sun-protective cover before 10 am and after 4 pm – when UV radiation is lowest.
Infants should be dressed in lightweight clothing that covers the arms and legs, and their face neck and ears should be protected with a wide-brimmed hat or bonnet.
When an infant is traveling in a vehicle, it is wise to cover the windows with removable mesh window shields or UV window film to reduce sun exposure.
While sunscreen is regarded as a key form of sun protection, it is not recommended for use on infants under the age of 6 months.
“Babies’ skin is less mature compared to adults, and infants have a higher surface-area to body-weight ratio compared to older children and adults,” explains Dr. Hari Cheryl Sachs, a pediatrician at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Both these factors mean that an infant’s exposure to the chemicals in sunscreens may be much greater, increasing the risk of side effects from the sunscreen.”
“The best protection is to keep your baby in the shade, if possible,” she adds. “If there’s no natural shade, create your own with an umbrella or the canopy of the stroller.”
If it is not possible to protect an infant from the sun with protective clothing or shade, sunscreen may be applied on the advice if a pediatrician.
It is safe to use sunscreen in babies aged 6-12 months, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, who note that a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 should be applied.
Wearing protective clothing and seeking shade are still key factors for protecting a baby against the sun; sunscreen should be applied on areas that are not covered – such as the hands and face – 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied every 2 hours after swimming or sweating.
Children aged 6 months and older should also wear wraparound sunglasses that block 99-100% of UV radiation.
As a child grows, protecting them against the sun can become more difficult. They are more likely to be exposed to sunlight by playing outdoors, and they are also more likely to disobey requests to wear a hat or sunglasses.
In 2004, Dr. Lori Steinberg Benjes, a dermatologist in Cambridge, MA, led a study published in JAMA Dermatology that looked at rates of sun protection among children aged 6 and 18 months.
The results revealed that while 22% of children experienced tanned or sunburnt skin at the age of 6 months, this figure rose to 54% at 18 months. The researchers claim one reason for this is due to the difficulties parents face in controlling their children as they reach toddler age.
“Keeping babies out of the sun is often manageable, but consistent, effective sun protection of toddlers requires more effort and is more challenging,” Dr. Benjes notes.
The study also revealed that while there was a higher incidence of tanned and sunburnt skin among children aged 18 months, the use of sunscreen increased. This, the team says, indicates that parents fail to action other sun-protection methods.
“Parents need to understand that sunscreen is only one vital line of defense in sun protection,” says Dr. Perry Robins, president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, adding:
“Strategies such as seeking shade and dressing children in sun-protective clothing are just as important and can’t be abandoned in the second year, since sunscreen cannot keep all of the sun’s rays away from the skin. Teaching these techniques early to children can leave them with sun safety habits that will help prevent skin cancer later in life.”
For school-age children, the rules for sun protection remain the same; they should use sunscreen, wear protective clothing and seek shade when UV radiation is at its strongest, which is normally around midday.
Of course, parents have a lot to think about when they are getting their child ready for school, which means they may be less likely to focus on sun protection.
“Getting a few kids ready for school in the morning involves making breakfasts, packing lunches, choosing outfits, finding shoes/homework/backpacks, so yes, sometimes parents slack on the sunscreen,” Dr. Chipps told MNT.
She does, however, provide a useful tip to help combat this problem: “As a parent, I advise making sunscreen part of the childrens’ daily morning routine. I keep the sunscreen on the bathroom counter so my kids can apply it when they brush their teeth and comb their hair.”
But how can parents ensure their children receive adequate sun protection when they are at school and out of their sight?
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sometimes schools can be the “biggest block” to children’s sun safety. “Many schools see sunscreen as a medicine, and require either written permission to use it, or require that the school nurse apply it,” they note. “Many schools also ban the wearing of hats and sunglasses during school hours, including recess.”
The Foundation recommend parents talk to their child’s school to find out what their policy is on sun safety. If the school is not doing enough to protect children, they recommend alerting other parents and getting them involved in encouraging the school to take action.
Schools, however, can also play an important role in increasing children’s sun safety. “Evidence suggests that sun-safety interventions in child care centers, elementary schools and middle schools are effective in increasing children’s use of sun protection,” says Holman.
Such interventions – detailed in The Community Guide from the Community Preventive Services Task Force – include educating children about the risks of UV radiation and what can be done to protect against them, as well as implementing activities designed to influence children’s, teachers’ and parents’ behaviors and attitudes toward sun safety.
“In addition,” added Holman, “the public health community can work with partners to ensure parents have the information they need to keep their families sun-safe and that other community sectors – such as those working at schools and outdoor recreational settings – have the tools they need to support sun-safety.”
We all know what it’s like to be a teenager. It is a time when you may feel pressured to look a certain way and conform to common perceptions of what is attractive. For many teens – particularly girls – attractiveness means having tanned skin.
What many people – both teenagers and adults – fail to realize is that any form of tan is a reflection of skin damage. The skin turns brown because of an increase in melanin production in an attempt to protect it from further damage.
But many individuals – particularly teens – put their desire for a tan over the associated health risks. In a Spotlight investigating the dangers of UV exposure last year, Tim Turnham, executive director of the Melanoma Research Foundation, told us:
“Despite elevated awareness of the dangers of UV radiation, people still choose to ignore the dangers in the pursuit of what they consider to be a ‘healthy tan.’ This is particularly an issue among young people who tend to ignore health risks in favor of enhancing their social status and popularity. We know that tanning appeals to people who are interested in being included, and this is a primary driver for teens – being part of the ‘in’ crowd.”
Unfortunately, the desire for being part of the “in” crowd pushes many teenagers toward indoor tanning. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, around 17% of teenagers have reported using a tanning bed at some point in their lives.
Indoor tanning can dramatically raise the risk of skin cancer – with the rays that tanning devices emit being around 10-15 times stronger than those given off by the midday sun.
A 2014 study estimated that each year, around 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the US may be related to indoor tanning, while a study reported by MNT last year linked the use of tanning beds in teenagers to greater risk of basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – the most common skin cancer in the US.
The dangers of indoor tanning have hit the headlines recently after a 29-year-old woman shared a picture of wounds caused by treatment for skin cancer. Tawny Willoughby, from Kentucky, was first diagnosed with BCC aged 21 – a diagnosis she puts down to her excessive sunbed use as a teenager.
“If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go! This is what skin cancer treatment can look like,” she wrote alongside her posted picture. “Wear sunscreen and get a spray tan. You only get one skin and you should take care of it.”
A spray tan is certainly a healthier alternative to using indoor tanning devices for those who yearn for a golden glow, though it should be noted that a spray tan does not protect the skin against the sun. The use of sunscreen is still required. Another alternative is tanning lotions, some of which have an SPF of 15 and above.
As well as the use of sunscreen, it is recommended that teenagers also seek shade during midday hours and wear sun-protective clothing. If your teen complains that such clothing isn’t fashionable, try to find items that are more stylish that still cover them up – like a pretty sarong for a teenage girl, for example.
But of course, one of the best ways to encourage sun safety in children – no matter what their age – is to lead by example. As the Skin Cancer Foundation say:
“The most important thing to remember when thinking about sun protection is this: you are your children’s role model. Be sure to let them see you protecting yourself from the sun. If you have great skin, so will they.”