Skin Cancer Protection Starts in Infancy
Skin Damage During First Year of Life Raises Skin Cancer Risk Later, Researchers Say
The ABCs of Infant Sun Protection
Day recommends keeping infants and toddlers indoors when the sun is strongest, which is usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., choosing clothing with built-in ultraviolet (UV) protection, and slathering on the sunscreen.
When choosing sunscreen for children, look to thicker zinc- or titanium-based products, she says. “These are more opaque and sit on skin rather than getting absorbed." And zinc and titanium don’t irritate the eyes as much because they tend to stay in place.
It is important that a sunscreen blocks against UVA and UVB rays. The FDA has proposed a 4-star rating system for UVA protection. Sun protection factor (SPF) mainly refers to UVB protection, Day says.
“UVA rays are strong all day long and can penetrate through glass," she says. Clear protective coatings for car and home windows can shield a baby from UVA rays,” she says.
Vitamin D is often called the sunshine vitamin because our bodies make it when exposed to sunlight. Day suggests checking children’s vitamin D levels periodically to make sure they don’t dip too low because of sun protection measures. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with many health problems.
“Infant and toddlers’ skin barrier protection is quite immature,” says Roya Samuels, MD, a pediatrician at the Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park. “A child’s skin has structural quality that makes it more vulnerable to the effects of UV radiation, and this can result in an increased risk of later skin cancer.”
The sunscreen should have an SPF of 15 or higher, she says.
Practical Advice for Parents
Ravinder Khaira, MD, a pediatrician with Sutter Independent Physicians in Sacramento, Calif., says that applying sunscreen -- and reapplying it according to the directions -- is the No. 1 way to prevent sunburn and sun damage that can lead to skin cancers when children grow up.
Take special care to cover their ears, nose, and scalp, he says.
Young children do have highly sensitive skin, so it’s a good idea to do a small patch test before slathering on a new sunscreen. “Test it on the forearm and wait about 30 to 40 minutes to see if any hives, swelling, redness, or itchiness occur,” Khaira says.
If children get sunscreen in their eyes, flush their eyes and face with cold water to minimize any irritation, he says.