The seeds of skin cancer are planted early. Roughly 20 percent of all Americans will develop the disease in their lifetime. And having blistering sunburns as a child can double one's risk of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. As a mom, these facts freak me out because my husband, Gary, has had skin cancer repeatedly -- starting when he was 20. So far his cancers have been basal- and squamous-cell carcinomas, which are usually less dangerous than melanoma. However, our 17-month-old son, Noah, has inherited Gary's light complexion and blue eyes, and possibly his predisposition toward skin cancer. Fortunately, we now know a lot more about the sun's dangers than parents did when Gary was growing up.
When we take Noah out, we try to follow the latest sun-protection advice -- which is important for all kids, not just those with fair skin. We avoid spending time outside between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when UV rays are at their strongest. (A good rule of thumb: If your shadow is shorter than you are, you should seek shade, says Parents advisor Lawrence F. Eichenfield, M.D., chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Rady Children's Hospital San Diego.) We keep Noah in a shaded stroller, and dress him in a hat, baby sunglasses, and loose clothing with a tight weave to block the sun. We also buy special sun-protective clothing that he wears on beach days. (Another option: Use a wash-in treatment that ups regular clothing's sun-protection ability.) And, of course, we slather on the sunscreen.
Taking these measures should make a difference, Parents advisor Jody Alpert Levine, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist in New York City, assures me. "The risk of basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinomas is directly related to sun exposure, whereas melanoma also has a strong genetic component. So if parents practice careful sun protection, their child should be fine."
Still, as straightforward as sun-safety advice seems, most of us have questions -- especially when it comes to sunscreen. We turned to leading dermatologists for answers.
What SPF should my child be using?
At least 30. "If your child is fair and burns easily, I recommend using an SPF of 50," says Dr. Eichenfield. SPF (which stands for sun protection factor) measures how many times a product increases your skin's natural sun barrier. So if you burn in ten minutes, an SPF of 15 should give you 150 minutes without turning red. There's probably no need to go any higher than 50. In fact, the FDA has proposed a rule that would prohibit manufacturers from claiming anything above "50+," because there's not enough evidence to prove that higher numbers would offer greater protection. Plus, "Sunscreen rubs off way before you get to the end of the 'safe' period," says Elaine Siegfried, M.D., professor of pediatrics and dermatology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. But you also need to look for "broad spectrum" on the label. That means that the product not only guards against burning UVB rays, but also UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin and cause skin cancer as well as wrinkling and premature aging.