Friday, May 29, 2009

Sun Safety for Kids

There is nothing better than playing outside on a warm, sunny day. Sunlight actually provides us with Vitamin D which helps our bodies absorb calcium. The bad news is that unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays also causes skin damage, eye injury and can lead to skin cancer. Surprisingly, most kids receive up to 80% of their lifetime exposure to the sun before age 18 and this time in the sun can have a long-term effect. Experts say that just one or two blistering sunburns during childhood can greatly increase the risk of developing skin cancer as an adult. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the US and some types can be deadly.

Children with more melanin in their skin are less likely to burn. This chemical gives some natural protection but remember that a “tan” is actually a sign of skin damage. Sunburn is evidence that the amount of ultraviolet ray exposure is greater than what can be protected against by the skin’s melanin. Children at the greatest risk are those with moles on their skin (or whose parents have a tendency to develop moles), very fair skin and hair, and a family history of skin cancer.

UV rays are strongest during the summer months and even more dangerous, in our part of the country, from 10:00 a.m. to about 4:00 p.m. If your children play outside during these hours, be sure to apply a sunscreen. Most of our UV exposure comes from day-to-day activities in the yard and playground – not just at the pool or beach! Also, UV rays are dangerous even on cool, cloudy days when we don’t feel the heat of the sun.

Children six months or older should wear a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher. Fair skinned children should wear an SPF of 30 for better protection. Select a broad spectrum (protects again both UV-A and UV-B rays), waterproof lotion and apply it a half-hour before your child goes outside so it has time to be absorbed. Make sure you cover all exposed areas including hands, feet and the tops of ears. There are several kid friendly lotions today that come out of the bottle in bright colors and disappear after being applied. You can also buy lotions that have a bug repellent in them although some sources say this can decrease the effectiveness of the sunscreen slightly. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two to three hours. After swimming, dry your child off and reapply sunscreen. Waterproof sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water.

Many sunscreens have an expiration date on them. If yours doesn’t, most ingredients are fine for up to three years as long as the container has remained closed and kept in a cool place. If yours smells funny or looks different, throw it out. We often keep the sunscreen in hot cars and beach bags which are not optimum conditions for a long shelf life.

Covering up with clothing helps prevent sunburn but the effectiveness depends on the fabric. A typical white t-shirt provides SPF protection of only 10. Tight knit, thick material provides better protection and shirts with long sleeves and pants provide more protection than tank tops and shorts. Make sure children have hats with wide brims that shade the ears, neck and face.

It’s never too early to teach children about sun safety. In Australia where the sun is strong and skin cancer is prevalent, Aussies have developed a national health campaign with the slogan “Slip, Slop, Slap.” This stands for slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, and slap on a hat. This is a fun way to remind children to avoid overexposure to the sun’s rays. Enjoy your summer!

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