Why does my child need sun protection?

It can be frustrating if your child puts up a fuss every time you slather on the sunblock. No parent wants to drag his or her child out of the pool when it's time to reapply it. Especially if your child does not burn easily, you may be wondering, "Does my child really need sun protection?" In a word, "Yes."

Why do children need sun protection? We all know that sun exposure can cause painful sunburns. This happens when ultraviolet (UV) radiation injures skin cells. UV radiation is light that we cannot see. It damages human cells. The main source of UV radiation is sunlight, but indoor tanning bulbs also emit UV radiation. The severity of a sunburn depends on the intensity of the UV radiation, the amount of time the person is exposed to it, and how sensitive the person's skin is to it. Sunburns can range from minor discomfort and discoloration to severe pain with multiple blisters requiring medical attention. Nobody wants to see his or her child suffer in pain for hours or days knowing that simply applying sunblock could have prevented such suffering.

You may think that because your child has rarely or never burned in the past, he or she is not at risk of getting a sunburn. There are several medicines, however, that are photosensitizing. This means that they can make the skin much more sensitive to UV radiation. Some common photosensitizing drugs include ibuprofen, naproxen, and ketoprofen (anti- inflammatory medicines used to relieve pain); birth control pills; ciprofloxacin, doxycycline, and minocycline (antibiotics); griseofulvin (used to treat fungal infections); isotretinoin and tretinoin (retinoids used to treat acne). This is not a complete list. Many other medicines can cause photosensitivity. There are alsoother chemicals, including some found in cosmetics and fragrances, which can cause photosensitivity. If your child has taken a photosensitizing drug or used photosensitizing makeup or fragrances, he or she could get quite a sunburn even if he or she has never had one before.

Preventing the pain of sunburn isn't the only reason to protect your children from sun exposure. Eye exposure to UV radiation increases the risk of developing cataracts and macular degeneration. These are eye diseases which can cause vision loss and, eventually, blindness. Cataracts can be treated with eye surgery, but this is expensive, can be frightening and, like any surgery, is not risk-free. Treatment options for macular degeneration are not very effective and are very expensive. UV radiation is also the cause of most signs of aging, including fine lines, wrinkles, sagging skin, leathery skin, and uneven skin color (blotches and age spots). The best way to maintain a youthful appearance is to avoid UV skin damage, including sunburns and suntans.

Sunburns also dramatically increase the risk of skin cancer. A person who has 1 or more blistering sunburns during childhood or adolescence has more than twice the risk of melanoma (the deadliest type of skin cancer) as a person who does not have any blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence. Even milder sunburns are dangerous. A person who has had more than 5 sunburns throughout his or her lifetime has twice the risk of melanoma as a person who has not had sunburns.

Many people think that the key to avoiding the pain of sunburn and the associated increased risk of skin cancer is to slowly build up a suntan, which will protect them from burning. This is not a good idea. Unlike sunburns, suntans are not painful, but they are still a sign of skin damage. Remember, any change in your child's skin color as a result of sun exposure is a sign of damage. Suntans greatly increase the risk of the more common types of skin cancer: basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers are not as deadly as melanoma, but they can require painful surgeries for their removal and may leave severely disfiguring scars. Tanning also increases the risk of melanoma (though not as much as sunburns). People with blonde hair, light eyes (not brown), fair skin, or a family history of skin cancer are at an increased risk. If your child has any of these traits, it is very important that you protect his or her skin from sun damage. There are people who develop all kinds of skin cancer who do not have any of these risk factors. That means that it is important to protect your child from sun exposure, even if he or she does not have light skin, hair, or eyes or a family history of skin cancer. Death from skin cancer is fairly uncommon, but both skin cancer deaths and the number of nonfatal cases of skin cancer are steadily increasing. If your child lives to be at least 65 years old (we certainly hope so!), he or she has a 40%-50% chance of having at least one episode of skin cancer. The best thing you can do to reduce this risk is develop good sun protection habits during his or her childhood.

Your son or daughter is probably not very concerned with his or her health multiple decades from now. Telling children that applying sunblock or wearing sunglasses will help them avoid skin cancer, premature aging, cataracts, and macular degeneration is unlikely to make a deep enough impact on them that they will do everything they need to in order to avoid UV damage. That's why they need you to look out for their health. If you make healthy choices for them when they are young, they will be more likely to make healthy choices for themselves as they grow up. Many years from now, when they are healthy middle and older adults, they will be grateful beyond measure for all that you did to help them live long, healthy lives.

Your child can have fun outside and stay safe from the sun. Please see our "Summer Safety Tips" packet for important tips on protecting your son or daughter's skin and eyes from sun damage.

Much of the information included in this handout came from the Skin Cancer Foundation. For more helpful information about the risks of sun exposure and how you can protect your children (and yourself) from sun damage, visit their website, http://www.skincancer.org.