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The Informed Parent

Sun Safety

by Shanna R. Cox, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Aug. 22, 2005

Upon entering into the hottest month of the year we can be sure that summer is upon us. Most families are planning on spending long days at the beach, park or camping. Particularly here in Southern California, sun is part of our daily lifestyle. Knowing how to best protect your family is an important step not only to have an enjoyable summer but also to promote healthy lifelong skincare.

Skin cancer is the leading form of malignancy in the United States. Sun exposure is the number one contributing factor to the development of skin cancer. There are multiple types. Some are superficial and can be handled by removing them surgically. Others, like melanoma, can spread rapidly throughout the body leading to the need for chemotherapy or radiation. Sun exposure prior to the age of eighteen usually is the cause that puts people at highest risk for later development of skin cancer. Dermatologists estimate that sixty-to-seventy-five percent of total lifetime sun exposure occurs during these years. This is due to the fact that children spend so much more time outside than adults. Blistering burns are noted to be particularly damaging to children's skin, and directly related to higher risks of skin cancer.

The sun's damaging rays are strongest between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon. Therefore, if possible, families should avoid direct sun exposure during this time. At the least, parents must be aware of these risky hours and pay specific attention to protective measures during this time. Infants less than six months of age are too young to use sunscreen. They should be covered in light clothing from head to toe when outside. A floppy hat and even protective eyewear could also be considered. Any burn that an infant sustains should be looked at by a pediatrician. Burns are painful and damaging to the skin. They can also cause fever and dehydration, which can lead to other serious health problems, particularly for the very young.

After six months of age sunscreen should be applied to children's skin just as it would to an adult. Fragrance free, PABA free, waterproof lotions that have a SPF of fifteen or greater and broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection are best. The family should apply their sunscreen approximately thirty minutes before their day out together. This gives the sunscreen a chance to be absorbed completely so that it can work most effectively. Parents must remember to reapply sunscreen approximately every ninety minutes. The face, ears and feet must be included in all applications. Zinc oxide may be used for these very sensitive areas. Cloudy days, or days in the snow or sand are just as likely to cause damage as that cloud free perfect day. For those that are especially fair complected, parents may couple their sun application with dressing their children in clothing with a tight weave that is less likely to be penetrated by the rays of the sun. Cotton clothing can protect while staying relatively cool on a warm summer day.

Sometimes despite best intentions, a burn may occur. Parents may apply cool compresses, chilled aloe, or hydrocortisone cream to a burn. Greasy products should not be applied as they can insulate the burn and potentially make it worse. Any severe burn should be examined by a pediatrician, particularly one that is blistering. Children must be kept out of the sun when burned. The damaged skin is at particular risk for malignant transformation and must be protected. With these simple precautions, families can happily and healthily enjoy the summer season!

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