With the summer approaching rapidly, it is important to discuss steps we can take to ensure that our families stay safe in the sun. Some sun exposure is important and healthy for us, since the sun is our primary source of vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones. However, most people don't need much time in the sun before they get all the vitamin D they need, and unprotected sun exposure can cause skin damage, eye damage, immune system suppression, and even cancer. Even people in their TWENTIES can develop skin cancer!!! So let's make sure that we stay safe in the sun.
Most kids love being outside and therefore accumulate between 50% and 80% of their lifetime sun exposure before age 18. The sun exposure that children get can affect their risk for skin cancer later in their lives, so it's important that parents teach their kids how to enjoy fun in the sun safely. With the right precautions, you can greatly reduce your child's chance of developing skin cancer.
Facts About Sun Exposure
The light that the sun radiates to the earth consists of invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays, called UVA, UVB, and UVC. When these rays reach the skin, they cause tanning, burning, and other skin damage.
Here is a breakdown of the three types of ultraviolet rays:
- UVA rays cause skin aging and wrinkling and contribute to skin cancer, such as melanoma. Because UVA rays pass effortlessly through the ozone layer (the protective layer of atmosphere, or shield, surrounding the earth), they make up the majority of our sun exposure. Beware of tanning beds because they use UVA rays. A UVA tan does not help protect the skin from further sun damage; it merely produces color and a false sense of protection from the sun.
- UVB rays are also dangerous, causing sunburns, cataracts (clouding of the eye lens), and immune system damage. They also contribute to skin cancer. Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is thought to be associated with severe UVB sunburns that occur before the age of 20. Most UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, but enough of these rays pass through to cause serious damage.
- UVC rays are the most dangerous, but fortunately, these rays are blocked by the ozone layer and don't reach the earth.
Melanin: The Body's First Line of Defense
UV rays react with a chemical called melanin that's found in most people's skin. Melanin is the first line of defense against the sun because it absorbs dangerous UV rays before they can do serious skin damage. Melanin is found in different concentrations and colors, resulting in different skin colors. The lighter a person's natural skin color, the less melanin it has to absorb UV and protect itself. The darker a person's natural skin color, the more melanin it has to protect itself. A sunburn develops when the amount of UV exposure is greater than what can be protected against by the skin's melanin. (But both dark- and light-skinned kids need protection from UV rays because any tanning or burning causes skin damage.)
As melanin increases in response to sun exposure, our skin tans. However, even a "healthy" tan may be a sign of sun damage. The risk of damage increases with the amount and intensity of sun exposure. Farmers, boaters, and sunbathers, who are continuously exposed to the sun are at the greatest risk of skin damage.
Unprotected sun exposure is particularly dangerous for kids with:
- moles on their skin (or whose parents have a tendency to develop moles)
- very fair skin and hair
- a family history of skin cancer, including melanoma
How to Protect your Family from UVA and UVB Exposure:
Avoid the Strongest Rays of the Day
In order to protect yourself and your family from skin damage, avoid being in the sun for prolonged times during the middle of the day. UV rays are most intense between the hours of 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM in the northern hemisphere. If you're unsure about the sun's intensity, do the shadow test: If your shadow is shorter than you, the sun's rays are the strongest and it is safer to plan indoor activities during those times. If kids are in the sun between these hours, be sure to apply plenty of protective sunscreen — even if they're just playing in the backyard. Most sun damage occurs as a result of incidental exposure during day-to-day activities, not at the beach.
Make sure to protect your family even on cloudy, cool, or overcast days. Clouds and pollution don't filter out UV rays, and they can give a false sense of protection. It is often difficult to notice that we're developing a sunburn on cooler or windy days because the temperature or breeze keeps skin feeling cool on the surface. So, make sure lather up with sunscreen even on cloudy, cool, and overcast days!!
If you plan to be outdoors, you can check the UV Index for your area. You can typically find this in your local newspaper, on TV, or on the radio news broadcast. You can also find it on the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) website at http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html. The website also has a fun site designed specifically for kids, where they can learn about safe sun exposure: http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/kids/kids_uvindex.html
When you are out in the sun, wear clothing to protect as much skin as possible from UV rays. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or long skirts cover the most skin and are the most protective. Dark colors generally provide more protection than light colors. Ensure that clothes will screen out harmful UV rays by placing your hand inside the garments and making sure you can't see it through them.
Be aware that covering up doesn't block out all UV rays. A typical light T-shirt worn in the summer usually protects you less than sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. A few companies in the US now make sun-protective clothing. They are more tightly woven, and some have special coatings to help absorb UV rays. Some sun-protective clothes have a label listing the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) value -- the level of protection the garment provides from the sun's UV rays (on a scale from 15 to 50+). The higher the UPF, the higher the protection from UV rays. I have seen these particularly for children's swimsuits (surfer type shirts mainly) and they are available at places such as Target.
Because infants have thinner skin and underdeveloped melanin, their skin burns more easily than that of older kids. It is therefore very important to keep infants out of the sun whenever possible. If your infant must be in the sun, dress him or her in clothing that covers the body, including hats with wide brims to shadow the face. Try to wear a hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around. This is ideal because it protects areas often exposed to the sun, such as the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp. Use an umbrella to create shade.
Use Protective Eyewear for Kids
Sun exposure cannot only damage our skin, but also our eyes. Even 1 day in the sun can result in a burned cornea (the outermost, clear membrane layer of the eye). Cumulative exposure can lead to cataracts later in life (clouding of the eye lens, which results in blindness). The best way to protect eyes is to wear sunglasses.
Not all sunglasses provide the same level of ultraviolet protection; darkened plastic or glass lenses without special UV filters just trick the eyes into a false sense of safety. The ideal sunglasses should block 99% to 100% of UVA and UVB radiation. Check the label to be sure they do. Some labels may say, "UV absorption up to 400 nm." This is the same as 100% UV absorption. Also, labels that say "Meets ANSI UV Requirements" mean the glasses block at least 99% of UV rays. Those labeled "cosmetic" block about 70% of the UV rays. If there is no label, don't assume the sunglasses provide any protection.
Many kids do not enjoy wearing sunglasses, especially the first few times. To encourage them to wear them, let kids select a style they like — many manufacturers make fun, multicolored frames or ones embossed with cartoon characters. However, make sure the sunglasses provide 100% UV absorption and are not merely toy sunglasses. Also, take advantage of the fact that kids enjoy to be like grown-ups. If you wear sunglasses regularly, your kids may be willing to follow your example. If you have additional ideas of how to get your tot to wear sunglasses or hats (a big struggle with my 16 month old) please leave a comment!
Use Sunscreen- with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or higher
What matters most in a sunscreen is the degree of protection from UV rays it provides. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that all children — regardless of their skin tone — wear sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. The SPF number represents the level of protection against UVB rays provided by the sunscreen -- a higher number means more protection. It is important to remember that sunscreen does not give you total protection. When using an SPF 15 and applying it correctly, you get the equivalent of 1 minute of UVB rays for each 15 minutes you spend in the sun. So, 1 hour in the sun wearing SPF 15 sunscreen is the same as spending 4 minutes totally unprotected.
The SPF number indicates protection against UVB rays only. Sunscreen products labeled "broad-spectrum" protect against UVA and UVB radiation, but at this time there is no standard system for measuring protection from UVA rays. Products with an SPF of 15 or higher that also contain avobenzone (Parsol 1789), ecamsule, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide are likely to be effective against UVB and most UVA rays.
For sunscreen to do its job, it must be applied correctly. Be sure to:
- Apply sunscreen whenever your child will be in the sun.
- Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before kids go outside so that a good layer of protection can form. Don't forget about lips, hands, ears, feet, shoulders, and behind the neck. Lift up bathing suit straps and apply sunscreen underneath them (in case the straps shift as a child moves).
- Apply sunscreen generously.
- Reapply sunscreen often, approximately every 2 to 3 hours, as recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. Reapply after a child is sweating or swimming.
- Apply a waterproof sunscreen if kids will be around water or swimming. Water reflects and intensifies the sun's rays, so kids need protection that lasts. Waterproof sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water, and some are also sweat- and rub-proof. But regardless of the waterproof label, be sure to reapply sunscreen when kids come out of the water.
While it is extremely important that we wear sunscreen in order to protect ourselves and our families from UV rays, choosing the right sunscreen is very important as well. Many popular sunscreens are unfortunately filled with chemicals that have been found to contribute to cancer due to their mutagenic and free radical generating properties. Researchers from the University of Southern California have recently found that sunscreen can actually cause more harm than good once it is soaked into the skin.
Stay tuned, next week I will share all about the specific chemicals and give you some recommendations of safer sunscreens!