Okay, this question sounds like a no-brainer: Is sunscreen the key to protecting your family from skin cancer?
The answer: Yes -- and no. Of course, it's crucial to make sure your kids wear sunscreen whenever they're outside, but high-SPF products have given us a false sense of security. Too many parents assume they can just give their children a little spritz or smear and they'll be magically protected for hours. As a result, kids today may actually be spending even more time in the sun -- and may be exposed to more UV radiation -- than they were a decade ago.
"Wearing sunscreen doesn't make it safe for you to stay out in the sun all day, just like wearing a seat belt doesn't make it safe for you to drive 100 miles per hour," says Andrea Cambio, MD, a pediatric and adult dermatologist in New York City. If your child gets just one bad sunburn, his chance of getting melanoma -- the most deadly form of skin cancer -- doubles. Even if your child normally tans, her golden skin is still a sign of sun damage. Don't let our culture's obsession with bronzed celebrities fool you: About every hour, another person in the U.S. dies from melanoma, and 20 percent of Americans will get skin cancer during their lifetime.
In fact, melanoma, which is seen primarily in adults over age 50, now strikes kids as young as age 10. "We're definitely seeing more melanoma in children than we used to," says Parents advisor Lawrence Eichenfield, MD, chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at Children's Hospital, San Diego. This is partly due to the fact that the UV-blocking ozone layer has thinned -- another vital reason you need to be vigilant about protecting your kids.
But many of us are much too lax: In a poll of more than 3,700 Parents readers, only 38 percent of those surveyed said that they put sunscreen on their children every day in the summer, and only 7 percent do so year-round, as experts recommend. And pediatricians aren't always focusing on the problem either; a recent study in Pediatric Dermatology found that doctors only raise the issue of sun safety during 1 percent of all well-child checkups.
Here's the crucial medical message: It's estimated that your child will get more than half of his lifetime sun exposure before age 18, and smart sun protection throughout childhood can decrease his skin-cancer risk by 80 percent. And while most people know that sun exposure can cause cancer, far fewer know that even a mild sunburn suppresses the entire body's immune system -- possibly making a child more vulnerable to infections.
Sunscreen is only one aspect of skin-cancer prevention. Equally essential: limiting time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., seeking shade, putting on a hat, and wearing protective clothing. Although 94 percent of readers knew sunscreen was important, only 56 percent believed the same about hats, and just a third said either shade or clothing was crucial. Because steps you take now can save your child's life, we teamed up with the American Academy of Dermatology to give you the very latest information.