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.
The sun has three kinds of ultraviolet rays with different wavelengths.
UVA leads to skin aging and cancerUVB causes burning and cancerUVC can't pass through the ozone layer
In the past, experts believed that UVA -- which accounts for up to 95 percent of all UV radiation that reaches the earth -- caused fewer cancerous mutations than UVB. But new research shows that UVA, which penetrates deep into the lower levels of skin, may actually be equally dangerous.
1. A sunscreen's SPF (sun-protection factor) is a measurement of how well it protects against sunburn. If you slather on an SPF 30 product, you should be able to stay in the sun for 30 times longer without burning than if your skin were bare. However, SPF only measures how well a sunscreen blocks UVB. There are no numbers that measure protection against UVA.
2. Clothing's UPF (ultraviolet-protection factor) reflects how much total UV the fabric blocks. UPF 50 means that only one-fiftieth of all UV rays (2 percent) can shine through.
You need to think about sun safety year-round -- whether you're at the beach, at a soccer game, or in your backyard. In fact, your child gets lots of little doses of UV when you don't even realize it -- while sitting in his stroller or even in the back seat of the car -- and they all add up. Here are smart ways to stay safe.
Q. Do I need to be careful even if my child's skin tans very easily?
Absolutely. "A darker-skinned child has more natural protection because of the melanin in his skin, but it's only the equivalent of an SPF 8," says Dr. Boiko. His risk of skin cancer is lower than that of a fair-skinned child, but you probably allow him to spend more time in the sun. Even African-Americans can get skin cancer. In fact, reggae legend Bob Marley died of melanoma when the cancer spread to his brain.
Q. Those sun-protective shirts seem so hot. Any good alternatives?
Take a look at some of the latest offerings in sun-protective clothing, and you'll be surprised how the fabrics have gotten lighter, softer, and more breathable. "They're the best protection when your child is swimming because even waterproof sunscreen can't stay on for long periods of time in the water," says skin-cancer surgeon Susan Weinkle, MD, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of South Florida, in Tampa.
Another option: Rit SunGuard Laundry Treatment UV Protectant ($20), which increases the sun-protectiveness of clothing and bathing suits.
Q. Is a pricey department-store sunscreen better than one I get at the drugstore?
No. "You can choose an expensive product or a generic brand as long as it's at least SPF 30 and broad spectrum," says Dr. Weinkle. "Of course, if you're more likely to use the $25 sunscreen because it feels and smells better, then it's worth it." But if you'll apply sunscreen more generously because it's cheap, then stock up on a bargain brand.
Q. My child always has a tan line by the end of August. Should I really be aiming for no color at all?
"Kids should get as little color as possible, but many still get some despite using sun protection," says Robert Brodell, MD, professor of dermatology at Northeastern Ohio University College of Medicine. If your child's tan lines show a big contrast, you need to do more to block those rays.
Q. Does sunscreen expire?
Yes, and many products carry expiration dates. If yours doesn't, it's probably good for up to three years after you buy it. But if you're applying adequate sunscreen -- about an ounce (two tablespoons) for one's entire body -- you should use several bottles in a season. In fact, a 6-ounce bottle should last a family of four only one day at the beach if everyone reapplies once. If your bottle lasts for months, you're not using enough.
Q. How can I protect my baby?
Infants shouldn't be out in direct sunlight because their skin is too sensitive. Protect your little one with a hat and light clothing, and make sure he's shielded in his stroller or baby carrier. Pediatricians now say it's safe to use sunscreen on areas that you can't avoid exposing, such as arms and legs, but keep it away from the eyes and mouth. "Look for brands that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide," Dr. Cambio says. "These are called 'physical blockers' because they aren't absorbed by skin but stay on the surface and act like an umbrella to keep damaging rays out."
"You can buy the best sunscreen, but it won't protect you if you don't apply it properly," says pediatric dermatologist Virginia Sybert, MD, clinical professor of medical genetics at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Here's how.
Children need to get used to wearing sunscreen. It's as essential as bathing and brushing their teeth. Here's how to avoid a daily struggle.
If you're like 58 percent of the Parents readers we polled, evaluating sunscreen labels can seem like reading a chemistry textbook. Here are the most important things you need to know when you shop.
Your child's future's so bright, she's gotta wear shades. Sun exposure can damage her eyes, so make sure they're protected.
With the highest skin-cancer rates in the world, Australians have made sun prevention a public-health priority. It's too early to tell the full impact of this campaign, but the country's skin-cancer rate has started to decline. Here's what we can learn from them.
There is one known health benefit of sunlight: It triggers the production of vitamin D. Some pediatricians are concerned that kids aren't getting enough of this bone-building nutrient because there's been a small increase in rickets cases in the U.S. Could sunscreen be to blame? Most kids can get all the vitamin D they need from their diets and incidental sun exposure while using sunscreen, according to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology that reviewed all the scientific evidence. "Sunscreen doesn't completely block UVB, which causes the skin to produce vitamin D," says researcher Barbara Gilchrest, MD, professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine. Most of the children with rickets have been African-American or had dark skin, in which abundant melanin absorbs UV and reduces vitamin D production. "If your child has dark skin, spends little time outdoors, or doesn't drink fortified milk or orange juice, talk to your doctor about a vitamin supplement," Dr. Gilchrest says.
Copyright ? 2006. Reprinted with permission from the June 2006 issue of Parents magazine. Reviewed and updated 2012.
All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.