You may not be doing the right things to protect your children from sun damage. As many as 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
“Skin cancer risk is related to cumulative lifetime sun exposure,” says Dr. Ted Lain, a board-certified dermatologist in the Austin area. “Protecting children from a young age is very important to reduce the risk of skin cancer as an adult. Teens are a special group, because they are often outdoors several hours each day for sports activities or band practice.”
Sun Protection Factor
Many parents think that the higher the sun protection factor (SPF), the better. But there’s more to it.
SPF measures how long a sunscreen will protect skin from UVB rays—the kind that cause sunburn. If your child gets a sunburn after about 10 minutes in the sun without sunscreen, then using a product with SPF 15 increases the time by a factor of 15 (10 minutes x 15 = 150 minutes). Theoretically, that gives your child 2 ½ hours of protection.
Does this mean that using an SPF of 100, your child can stay in the sun for 1,000 minutes? No. Here’s why:
- Sunscreens are only effective for 2 hours or less and must be reapplied.
- Products with high SPFs (greater than 50) are more likely to contain chemicals that can cause damage or an allergic skin reaction.
- Your child’s skin may not turn red, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t get UVA damage. The SPF rating is based on UVB protection only.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) cautions, “High-SPF products tend to lull users into staying in the sun longer and overexposing themselves to both UVA and UVB rays.”
Protection from UVA Rays
UVA rays are damaging. “Many sunscreens don’t provide adequate protection from UVA rays,” the EWG warns. They recently released a comprehensive evaluation of sunscreens. Their research revealed:
- Many sunscreens in the U.S. don’t protect against UVA damage.
- Some that claimed “broad spectrum” protection against both UVA and UVB rays failed the testing.
- Products must contain zinc oxide or avobenzone to have good UVA protection.
- Sunscreens with SPF values higher than 50 were poor at both UVA and UVB protection.
- Applied too thinly, even sunscreens that do offer UVA protection are not as effective.
You Need to Know
|UV||Ultraviolet (UV) rays are light rays from the sun. UV rays also can come from artificial sources, such as tanning beds.|
|UVA||Ultraviolet A (UVA) is a lower-energy light ray. It’s more damaging because it penetrates deeply into the skin. UVA rays generate free radicals, which cause skin damage, skin aging and skin cancer.|
|UVB||Ultraviolet B (UVB) is a higher-energy ray that is the primary cause of sunburn. UVB rays can increase your risk of skin cancer.|
9 Tips for Sun Safety
Dr. Lain advises parents to follow these tips:
- Apply a thick layer of sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside or swimming, so that ingredients fully bind to the skin. One ounce of sunscreen (enough to fill a shot glass) is considered enough by the American Academy of Dermatology.
- Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours or as directed on the package. Also reapply after swimming or sweating.
- Wear wide-brimmed hats (not ball caps) and lip balm with SPF 30 protection.
- Wear sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. Wrap-around sunglasses are best.
- Use sunscreen even when it’s cloudy. Clouds don’t block UV rays.
- Consider washing clothes with a laundry aid like Sun Guard to add UV protection that lasts for 20 washings. This is great for camp.
- Sunscreen is not indicated for infants younger than 6 months old. Shade and sun avoidance is the best protection for them.
- Avoid the sun when UV rays are strongest. If you can’t stay indoors, seek shade.
- Avoid tanning just as much as sunburn. A tan is a response by the skin cells to DNA damage.
Select a Good Sunscreen
The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) offers these tips for selecting a sunscreen:
- Look for a broad spectrum product with UVA protection that includes zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone or ecamsule (Mexoryl).
- Look for the SCF’s Seal of Recom-mendation, which guarantees the product is safe and effective.
- Choose a high-quality product with an SPF of 15 to 50.
- Choose a cream; it’s hard to apply sprays heavily enough for adequate protection.
- Choose water resistant products for hot days or while playing sports, but not for everyday wear.
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Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer in Austin.