Parents Do Too Little to Protect Kids from Sun Damage

From the WebMD Archives

May 2, 2000 -- Picnics, baseball games, pools, and beaches -- parents and kids are gearing up to head out for fun in the sun. But too many parents still aren't adequately protecting either themselves or their children from the sun's harmful rays.

A new study shows that although parents are aware that sun exposure is dangerous, kids wearing sunscreen spend much more time in the sun than kids who don't, even though sunscreen provides only partial protection. What's more, many parents still emphasize the importance of that tanned look.

"We have seen progress in attitudes," says researcher June K. Robinson, MD, a Chicago dermatologist who has been studying skin-cancer protection for more than a decade. "People are using sunscreen. It's different from a decade ago, when adults were not using sunscreens at all. They just need to get better at it."

Robinson is a professor of medicine (dermatology and pathology) at Loyola University's Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center in Chicago. Her study appears in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Parents must also be aware that kids pick up on their habits and attitudes, she says. "Men, more so than women, still believe that a tan looks good and that older children who are tan look good," she says. "So we have to work on our male friends."

It's an important issue. Even one or two blistering sunburns can significantly increase a child's risk for developing skin cancer later in life, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, which funded Robinson's study. Dark- as well as light-skinned children are at risk.

To gain insight into parents' attitudes and the sun protection methods they use, Robinson conducted a telephone survey of 503 households in the Chicago area. Questions were asked about sun exposure during the previous week or weekend.

"We found that that parents were using sunscreen with an SPF 15 rating or greater as a sole means of protection for their children. Yet 13% of those children -- and 9% of parents -- were still getting sunburned on any given weekend," Robinson says.

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Parents were most likely to rely on sunscreen as the primary method for protecting their children from the sun, as opposed to keeping them in the shade or dressing them in protective clothing. Women, fair-skinned children, and children who had a family history of skin cancer were more likely to use sunscreen. As they got older, kids still used sunscreen, but they stayed in the shade less than the younger kids.

Parents only used sunscreen on children when the weather was sunny. They also applied sunscreen to their children more frequently than they did to themselves. Very often, they didn't apply enough sunscreen. And parents relied on sunscreen too much, allowing their children (with sunscreen) to spend an average of nearly 22% more time in the sun on a weekend than kids who were not using sunscreen.

"Our findings reinforce the importance of using multiple sun protection methods to maximize effective sun protection," says Robinson.

Being smart with the sun -- and not relying just on sunscreens for protection -- is critical, Michael P. Heffernan, MD, assistant professor of medicine (dermatology) at Washington University in St. Louis, tells WebMD.

"Any time your shadow is shorter than you are, those are high sun-exposure times," he says. "Kids, especially, should seek the shade. When they have to go outside at high-sun time -- between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. -- they should be wearing protective clothing. That includes long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and hats. Use sunscreens to cover the areas that are exposed, like the face, the hands."

Kids under 16 are most vulnerable to skin damage, Heffernan tells WebMD. "People accumulate somewhere between 50% and 80% of lifetime sun exposure by the time they're 16 years old. The average child gets three times more sun exposure as the average adult every year from playing outside." The amount of time a child should be allowed outside varies greatly depending on skin type, he says.

Blistering sunburns are the most damaging in terms of causing melanoma, he adds. But "chronic sun exposure, day in and day out, contributes to other types of skin cancer like basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, the most common types of malignancy."

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Babies under 6 months old should spend very little time in the sun, and should wear protective clothing and sunglasses. Children over 6 months should always wear a sunscreen of at least SPF 15.

Make sure you use an adequate amount of sunscreen, Heffernan tells WebMD. "On average, a person uses half the recommended amount to cover the area. So use a large amount. Cover the area thoroughly, and cover it from several different directions so you don't have any holes. You also need to reapply it frequently, because even though it says it's waterproof, it can get wiped off or come off with sweat."

Remember, even the best sunscreen doesn't give 100% protection, dermatologist Tanya Humphreys, MD, tells WebMD. "So even though you're not getting sunburned, you're still getting exposed to ultraviolet rays on cloudy days." Humphreys is associate professor of dermatology and director of cutanenous surgery at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

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