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Healthy skin habits: Dr. Davis explains why it's important to teach kids at an early age

April 12, 2013

With our recent cold snap finally over, summer and warmer temperatures are just around the corner. As we spend more time outdoors in short sleeves and shorts, we need to remember how important it is to protect our skin! Although everyone loves “a tan” for the summer, this is actually a sign of skin damage. Protecting our skin by using sunscreen and other forms of sun block is the first (and most important step) in keeping our skin healthy and preventing the most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma. Did you know that most of our sun exposure and skin damage from the sun happens before the age of 18? Developing healthy skin habits as children and maintaining these habits through adulthood is essential to keeping our skin healthy over our lifetime!

How does the sun damage our skin?

The sun produces invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays as part of the light it radiates to earth. These are the rays that are damaging to our skin and eyes. There are three different kinds of UV rays:  UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. UVA rays are responsible for skin aging, wrinkling and causing melanoma. These rays make up the majority of our daily sun exposure. UVB rays are responsible for causing sunburns and cataracts of the eyes. They also contribute to melanoma as this form of skin cancer is most common in adults who had several severe sunburns as children. What is concerning about melanoma is that we are seeing it in an increasing number of young adults and even teenagers. Both UVA and UVB rays pass easily through the earth’s protective ozone layer. UVC rays on the other hand are thought to be the most dangerous types of UV rays but are blocked by the ozone layer and never reach the earth’s surface.

What about melanin in our skin?

Melanin is a chemical in the skin that absorbs UV rays and causes our skin to tan. Everyone has a different level of melanin in their skin. Fair-skinned people have less melanin while darker complexions have higher concentrations of melanin. A common misconception is that darker skinned people do not “burn” or get skin cancer. Regardless of the concentration of melanin in the skin, anyone can get a sunburn or develop melanoma. Any amount of tan is damage to the skin whether you are fair skinned or not.

So how do we protect our skin from the sun?

Kids can get a sunburn just from playing in the backyard on a sunny day- not just during a day at the beach!  First and most importantly, all children (and adults) 6 months and older should always wear an SPF 30 before going outside for any length of time. SPF stands for sun protection factor and the number indicates the amount of time you can spend in the sun before getting a sunburn. For example, if you start to burn in 10 minutes without sunscreen, applying SPF 30 will allow you to stay in the sun 30x longer before starting to burn (ie-300 minutes). Other ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide offer the greatest protection against the entire spectrum of UV rays. Sunscreen should be applied 15 minutes before going outside to allow for adequate absorption into the skin. For most kids, two ounces (a shot glass full) of lotion should be enough to cover the entire body. Spray-type sunscreen should still be rubbed in after applied to the skin to ensure there are no missed spots.  Don’t forget to apply to commonly neglected areas such as the scalp, lips, ears, back of neck, and tops of feet! Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours while outside, especially if swimming or sweating.  Remember, there is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen! This means you may go through nearly an entire bottle of sunscreen during a full day at the beach. Children under 6 months of age have more delicate skin and underdeveloped levels of melanin. They should not have sunscreen applied to their skin at all. Keeping young babies out of the sun altogether is best. However, if this is not possible keep them completely covered up with clothing and under a covered stroller or tent while out in the sun.

Time of day is another factor important to consider when it comes to minimizing your risk of skin damage from the sun. Remember, the sun is strongest from 10am to 3pm. Try to get out early in the morning or later in the afternoon when enjoying beach or pool time. The same goes for exercising or playing sports outside during the summer months. UV rays are naturally strongest in the summer months. Also a factor is the latitude and altitude of your location. Places closer to the equator and at higher elevations equal higher concentrations of UV rays. If you know you are going to be out in the sun all day long, bring along a pop-up tent or beach umbrella. This will offer shade and a chance to take a break from the sun in the middle of the day. Also, bringing lightweight clothing with sleeves and pant legs that is not see-through is another way to cover up when the sun is at its strongest. Don’t forget that even on cloudy or cool days, skin damage from the sun is still possible. It is important to wear sunscreen on these days as well!

With the right precautions, kids can safely play in the sun and reduce the risk of developing skin cancer later in life. As parents, we can be good role models for our kids by consistently wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater, using sunglasses, and limiting our time in the sun.

These preventive behaviors not only reduce the risk of sun damage, but teach kids good sun sense!