Here comes the sun

My son Sebastian received a nasty sunburn last summer after a spending a day at the pool. The tender pink blotches spread across his shoulders and across the back of his neck, emanating heat like a built-in furnace. Ouch. Although he had applied sunscreen before leaving home, he forgot to reapply it after the first few hours of swimming. It’s the sort of thing that can slip the mind of a 14-year-old boy without a parental reminder.

I hope to avoid that scenario this summer. My concern for Sebastian and my two other kids goes beyond their short-term discomfort; as a fair-skinned person who’s had a few problem moles removed as an adult, I worry about the long-term risks of sun exposure—and with good reason, considering these statistics from the Skin Cancer Foundation:

• One blistering sunburn in childhood more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—later in life.

• Even a mild to moderate increase in sun exposure, with or without a resulting sunburn, can significantly spur the growth of pigmented moles in children, which greatly increases their risk of skin cancer.

• Melanoma rates in the U.S. have been rising for at least 30 years, and melanoma is one of the more common cancers in young adults.

The statistics also confirm what I suspected, as the mom of two teenagers and a tween: less than one-third of U.S. teens protect themselves effectively from the sun, and less than half use sunscreen. Fortunately, most skin cancers can be prevented if young people take practical steps to protect themselves from sun damage.

What to avoid

Dr. Lynn Glesne, a Minneapolis dermatologist, says avoiding tanning booths is a huge protective factor because tanning is harmful to the skin, and tanning in an indoor booth is worse than tanning outside.

“We’ve had some recent, really good epidemiological studies showing the strong link between going to a tanning booth and the increasing incidence of melanoma, especially among young women,” Glesne says.

One study released in April 2012 showed that indoor tanners were 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who had never tanned indoors, and those who tanned indoors just four times a year increased their risk of developing melanoma by 11 percent. That’s why groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Dermatology support laws prohibiting youth under age 18 from going to tanning booths.

Glesne says another main protective factor is to avoid sunburn. There’s a good correlation between even one sunburn in childhood and the development of skin cancer 20 to 30 years later. Although some people believe that getting a base tan helps protect them from burning, Glesne says that’s a myth; a tan is not protective for sunburn.

“I travel a lot to sunny places, and I’m constantly amazed that people are proud that they got a sunburn. I think, ‘What’s wrong with you—this is an injury to your skin!’”

Avoiding the sun completely is not easy or practical for Minnesota kids who look forward all year to outdoor summer activities. If possible, they should limit those activities between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., when the sun is strongest. If they must be outside, covering up with a broad-brimmed hat and protective clothing is recommended.

Companies like the Minneapolis-based Coolibar make specialty clothing that has built-in SPF protection. Regular clothing can also provide protection if it’s densely woven or worn in layers (if you hold the clothing up to the light and can see through it, the sun will also get through).

If youth can’t avoid the sun and can’t cover up, they should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Make sure it has an SPF of 15 or higher that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, and realize that it takes an ounce of product to cover the whole body. Apply the sunscreen at least half an hour before exposure to the sun (not 10 seconds before jumping into the pool), and reapply it at least every two hours.

It’s also helpful to teach kids the slogan Australians created to counter an alarming increase in melanoma in that country. “Slip! Slop! Slap! Wrap!” reminds people to slip on a protective shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat and wrap on sunglasses.

And recognize that actions speak louder than words. If we want our kids to take sun protection seriously, even when we’re not at the pool to remind them, we adults must practice those healthful behaviors, too.


Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to jriggs@mnparent.com.