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The Informed Parent

Sunscreen Q & A

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

Dear Dr. Welty,

I was told that I need not use sunscreen on my children. In fact, I understand that some sunscreens may cause cancer and that only older skin needs the added protection from the sun, not younger skin. What do you think? Are some sunscreens dangerous?

Dr. Welty:

Childhood is a particularly vulnerable time for the dangers of sun exposure. Current studies show that excessive sun exposure during the first 10-20 years of life significantly increases the risk of cancer.

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

Children generally spend more time outdoors than adults. With long summer days, mid-day activities, and water sports, children receive around three times the actual sun exposure than do adults. Studies have shown that most of one's sun exposure occurs in childhood. Our thinning Ozone layer may further enhance the dangers of the sun.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Academy of Dermatology, and The Skin Cancer Foundation all advise that sun protection be started in young childhood. Clearly those individuals with fair skin are at a much greater risk than persons with darker skin. It is recommended that a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater be used if a person plans on spending any length of time in the direct sunlight.

It is also recommended that infants under 6 months of age be kept out of the direct sunlight as much as possible. Chemical protection is NOT recommended for infants under this age.

Many factors are involved in the role of the sun exposure to cancer formation. Some studies suggest that the age of the first "intense" exposure is a major factor in cancer formation. In other words, a younger child may be more at risk than an adult with an equivalent exposure to the sun. It is also suggested that there is an accumulative, or additive, effect of exposure throughout one's lifetime. Other cancers are associated with repeated short, intense, blistering sunburns.

There has been mention made in the literature of a potential cancer-causing chemical in minuscule amounts in some sunscreens, specifically "PABA" containing products. It has not been determined if this warrants concern to the consumer. What is certain, however, is that a person does need protection from the sun. There are a number of safe sunscreens available on the market.

As you can see, early education of parents and children regarding excessive sun exposure is important. See your doctor for any added risk factors like fair skin, freckling, a family history of skin cancer etc. Your doctor will strongly recommend early, healthy preventive measures, yet provide you with guidelines that will allow you to enjoy a safe and enjoyable outdoor life.

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