FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. - Babies are not born with a suntan. “Tanned skin,” said Fairfield County dermatologist Dr. Robin Oshman, “means damaged skin.”
While sunshine nurtures and sustains life, exposure to it is undeniably dangerous – and sometimes deadly – to human beings. Every year more than 3.5 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And with the ozone layer of the atmosphere thinning, the potential for exposure to harmful solar radiation has increased.
But protecting skin from a very young age is an effective tool in preventing skin cancer, from superficial forms – basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas – to more lethal types of the disease, such as melanomas.
Research shows the importance of protecting children and young adults from overexposure to UV radiation. For babies under six months of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding sun exposure, as well as dressing infants in lightweight long pants, long-sleeved shirts and brimmed hats. Additionally, parents should apply sunscreen -- sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or more -- to children’s bodies if shade is unavailable, or on areas that protective clothing might not adequately cover, such as the face, tips of ears, back of hands and tops of feet.
And while applying sunscreen regularly and thoroughly to young children is a habit that is relatively easy to fall into, encouraging older children to be vigilant about protecting their skin from harmful ultra violet A and B (UVA and UVB) rays can be challenging. In fact, unless early, rigorous practice of sun protection is established by families, children will run the risk of becoming lackadaisical about protecting their skin – and about avoiding a sunburn that could potentially lead to deadly cancer later in life.
According to Dr. Ross Levy, a dermatologist with Northern Westchester Hospital, “Early exposure does increase one’s susceptibility to developing all forms of cancer.” In fact, he said, there is ample evidence that one or two blistering sunburns in early life might have a significant effect on the future development of skin cancer.
Establishing long-term habits of "sun hygiene" in children, said Oshman, is a good start in protecting them from skin cancer.
According to Oshman, “Sun exposure is cumulative over a lifetime.” Oshman said it takes some 20 years for people to actually see the cumulative effects of sun exposure. When they do, those effects come in the form of wrinkled, blotchy and leathery skin. They are the lucky ones, as lethal cancer falls at the other end of the spectrum.
Oshman said people at greatest risk of developing cancers are those with fair skin and blond hair and blue eyes. But other risk factors include “having three or more years of outdoor summer jobs, three or more blistering sunburns over a lifetime and/or a family history of skin cancer.” As summer bears down and kids spend time either working at or lying on the beach, Oshman’s list serves as a warning for parents and children to take precautions such as the following:
- Always wear sunscreen. Look for brands that have SPF 30, and that contain zinc, titanium or parsol. Reapply sunscreen liberally every four hours and always reapply after swimming.
- Use clothing to protect skin, including a hat with a four-inch brim, as well as tightly woven cotton clothes.
- Avoid sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Beware of reflective surfaces such as sand, water and snow.
- Always seek shade.
- Never use tanning beds.
- Wear UV protective sunglasses to prevent cataracts.
- See a dermatologist to have moles examined. If a mole itches, hurts, burns or bleeds, or if it gets larger or darker, it should be evaluated. If you have more than 50 moles or if your moles appear irregular you need to be evaluated.
The Environmental Protection Agency has created a website, “SunWise,” which provides information and resources about sun safety and skin cancer prevention.
This summer, make a renewed effort to protect your skin and that of your children – for the sake of this and all the summers yet to follow.