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The Informed Parent

Dangers Of Sun Exposure

by Peter W. Welty, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Sep. 27, 1999

There is substantial evidence that childhood is a particularly vulnerable time for the dangers of sun exposure. Studies show that excessive exposure to the sun during the first ten-to-twenty years of life significantly increases the risk of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is increasing at a fast rate, approximately 500,000 new cases a year. Perhaps our outdoor oriented lifestyle and the social popularity of sun tanning are much to blame for this increase.

Children generally spend more time out of doors than adults. With long summer days, mid-day activities, and water sports, children receive approximately three times the actual exposure to the sun than the average adult. In fact, studies show most of one's lifetime sun radiation occurs in childhood. Our thinning protective Ozone layer may further enhance the dangers.

Research has shown that a major factor in cancer formation may stem from early age exposure to the sun. Some young children may be harmed more than adults by equivalent doses. Other cancers are associated with cumulative sun exposure, while another type is associated with short, intense, blistering sunburns. Clearly, those youngsters with fair skin are at a greater risk, and dark skinned persons are at a much lower risk.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation all advise that sun protection be administered in early childhood. Generally speaking, this can be safely done with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater. Babies under six months of age should not be exposed to the sun directly. Application of chemical protection is likewise not recommended at this age. These young infants are best kept out of the direct sun light.

There have been reports of an isolated potential cancer causing chemical, in minute amounts, in some sunscreens. Products containing "PABA" are the specific brands. It is not known whether the chemical is present in enough quantity to be of any concern. However, with the high incidence of skin cancer from the sun exposure, sunscreen with or without the compound is still recommended. Avoid "PABA" brands if you can.

Early education of parents and children regarding excessive sun exposure is important. See your pediatrician for any added specific risk factors such as fair skin, freckling, or positive family history of skin cancer. Your doctor will strongly recommend early, healthy, preventative measures, and yet still allow for outdoor activities.

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