Woody Allen once said, "I don't tan, I stroke." I know how he feels. With fair skin and light eyes, I've had more than my share of sunburns over the years. As a kid, I spent summers at the beach and outdoors playing tennis and other sports at camp. The most common way to divide up teams back then was into shirts and skins, meaning there was a good chance I'd be baking the vast majority of my body in the sun. Sunscreen? It seldom (if ever) made it out of my dopp kit. SPF 8 was considered intense protection at that time. I recall laughing at the lifeguard at our lake for wearing zinc oxide on his nose. What a dork.
Well, I'm not laughing now. With a family history of skin cancer, I need to get regular screenings and biopsies from my dermatologist. I've also reformed my sun-worshipping habits as an adult. I apply sunscreen to my face, ears, and other exposed parts every morning, even in the winter. At the beach I wear a long-sleeved protective shirt that I would have mocked as a kid. And we invested in an SPF tent and tote along a beach umbrella, which makes for a mighty communal schlep through the sand.
Still, I'm not complaining. Thankfully, neither are my kids. Maybe they've gotten tired of my wife's and my nagging and realize that submitting to head-to-toe sunscreening (is that even a word?) is a non-negotiable. Perhaps they've seen Grandpa's many excisions. Whatever. I'm happy. This summer, when my 8-year-old had her first experience at sleepaway camp, we were concerned that her sun-smart habits might slip without our supervision. Since she, like her dad and Woody, burns easily, we wondered what she'd look like at pickup. To our pleasant surprise, her skin was nearly as pale as when we dropped her off (except for a cute sprinkling of Huck Finnish freckles), and her sunscreen supply was virtually depleted.
I only wish all families were so diligent about protecting their kids from the sun's increasingly harmful rays. Skin cancer is fast on the rise, and not just among older adults. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is increasing at a 2 percent annual rate among children, according to an article published in Pediatrics. Granted, melanoma is still rare in childhood. But its incidence has increased by 800 percent among young women and 400 percent among young men, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person's risk of developing it later in life. As we reported in The Great Coverup, most of the damage that results in cancerous tumors occurs from sun exposure (and lack of sun protection) prior to age 18. So it's largely too late for you and me. But it's not too late for your kids—if you take these precautions, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- Seek shade, especially during the midday hours (that's where our tent and umbrella come in).
- Cover up by wearing protective clothing (or at least a T-shirt and long shorts).
- Get a hat, though don't expect a baseball cap to prevent exposure to the neck and ears.
- Wear sunglasses, which block out UV rays—and might prevent cataracts later in life.
- Apply sunscreen. The SPF number doesn't matter too much (so long as it's 15 or higher), but make sure the label says it blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Also remember to apply it generously (we can go through a tube in a single day) and reapply it every couple of hours, including every time your kids come out of the water.
We're off on a beach vacay next week, where we'll doubtless see lots of families whose kids wear swimsuits and nothing more. I expect to get a bit of flack about that from my kids. But as long as I'm willing to look dorky in my SPF shirt, I know they won't win this argument. What about you: Do you take all of these sun-safety precautions with your child?
Image of boy peeling skin via Shutterstock