DOCTOR'S VIEW ARCHIVE

Sun Protection and Kids at the Beach

Excess sun exposure during childhood clearly increases one's risk for developing skin cancer as well as premature aging of the skin (photoaging).

The total number of skin cancers is increasing. Malignant melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, as well as basal cell and squamous cell cancers are being reported more frequently.

Early detection and prevention are extremely important in reducing injury and death from skin cancer. Detection involves observing the skin for changes, including color and texture of the skin, itching, and changes in the size of pigmented and non- pigmented skin areas. Prevention recommendations include avoiding excess sun, covering up the skin with clothing or sunblocks, and regularly applying sunscreens when exposed to the sun.

In order to determine the extent of protection from the sun that children at the beach are receiving, Dr. Ardis L. Olson and others at Dartmouth Medical School evaluated 871 children 2 to 9 years of age on the lake beaches of New Hampshire in the summer of 1995.

Dr. Olson observed the children and interviewed the parents/caregivers of the children for use of sun protection techniques. He noted which body regions were protected (head, torso, and legs) and the methods children used (hat, shirt, pants, sunscreen, or shade). His study was published in the recent edition of Pediatrics (1997;99[6]861).

The study found that only 54% of children were protected with at least one method for all body regions. This means that nearly half of the children were not protected from the sun.

Ultraviolet light in sunlight causes damage to genetic material (DNA) within the cells of our skin, which can lead to cancer. Ultraviolet light has three different forms (wavelengths): UVA is less powerful in causing sunburn redness and is constant throughout the day. UVB causes the classic sunburn and is most intense from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. UVC rays do not pass through the atmosphere, but are in artificial sun lamps.

Many sunscreens do not protect against UVA. Broad-spectrum sunscreens are currently available that protect against both UVA and UVB radiation. Labels on the containers describe the products' ability to protect. Opaque sunprotection lotions, such as zinc oxide and titanium, are sunblocks, which protect from all ultraviolet radiation.

The authors of the study concluded: "The message of the Australian Cancer Council to "Slip" (on a shirt), "Slop" (on sunscreen), and "Slap" (on a hat) is being promoted in this country by the American Cancer Society and should be used by clinicians and parents to help children think in terms of using multiple methods to protect themselves. It will require consistent, definite messages from parents and community to instill strong sun protection habits before adolescence."

The United States Preventive Services Task Force has determined that "avoiding sun exposure or using protective clothing is likely to decrease the risk of malignant melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers." It is critical that children are taught to use sunscreens and cover-up techniques early on so that these cancers are avoided.

So SLIP, SLOP, & SLAP for safety in the sun!

For more information, please visit the Skin Cancer and Melanoma Centers.


Last Editorial Review: 4/15/2002