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Sun Protection 101: How to Keep Your Children Healthy

by Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., M.S.
June 22, 2021

Did you know that rates of skin cancer in the United States have been rising steadily over the past three decades?

Especially striking increases have been noted for malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

In fact, the CDC reports that skin cancer is now the most common form of cancer in the U.S.

As the weather gets warmer and the sun gets hotter, it is important to learn how to best protect our children from solar radiation.

Solar radiation is hazardous to children, and exposure can cause all forms of skin cancer, including malignant melanoma. Children with lighter complexions — like blonde hair, red hair, and blue eyes — are at the highest risk of solar injury because their skin contains smaller quantities of the protective pigment (melanin) than children with darker complexions. But all children are at some degree of risk.

To protect your children from the hazards of sun exposure, the Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC) recommends you follow these five steps.

1. Use a sunscreen that is labeled “broad spectrum.”

Check the label for the ingredients titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone, and mexoryl. This ensures that your children are protected from both UVA and UVB rays.

2. Choose a sunscreen that is marked SPF 15 or higher.

Keep in mind that the label SPF indicates protection from only UVB rays (and not UVA rays). To best protect your children, make sure your sunscreen is labeled “broad spectrum.”

3. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors.

Sunscreen needs time to work on the skin. Reapply every two hours, especially if your child is playing in the water. Use sun protection even on cloudy days — most of the sun’s rays can penetrate the clouds.

4. Wear sun-protective clothing.

Hats with wide brims all the way around are very effective when protecting the ears, nose and back of the neck. Choose tightly woven and dark fabrics — they provide better protection than pastel-colored and loosely woven clothes.

Be sure to dress your children in loose clothing. The closer the fabric is to the skin, the less sun protection it offers.

5. Refrain from artificial tanning.

Tanning beds emit mostly UVA and some UVB rays. Exposure to these rays can lead to skin damage and skin cancer. Many U.S. states and some countries have banned minors from using tanning beds.

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