May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and it's the perfect time to talk about better sun safety for children. Despite increased sales of sunscreen, melanoma continues to increase at rapid rates. And much of the damage can occur during childhood; a single case of blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence doubles the risk of melanoma.
There's much more to sun safety than just the application of sunscreen.
At school, kids learn about brushing their teeth, eating well and exercising, but sun protection rarely makes an appearance. Then we adults try to reverse the damage later in life! When it comes down to it, sun protection should be as routine as wearing a seat belt.
Here are a few simple ways to help develop sun safety habits for our children, and they're great to remember for everyone throughout life.
1. Use the right quantity of sunscreen.
Of course the application of sunscreen is a no-brainer. But it’s also important to understand what sunscreen is, how to use it, and how to read the label. If you think you have put on enough, put on more. Layer the sunscreen like two coats of paint. If not applied heavily, the actual SPF achieved could be 1/3 of the labeled SPF.
2. Understand what SPF means.
One measure of SPF is HOW LONG a sunscreen will protect against sunburn. SPF stands for "sun protection factor" and refers to the theoretical amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting sunburned. For example, an SPF of 30 would allow you to stay in the sun 30 times longer than you could without protection; in other words, it's meant to be relative to the amount of time you, personally, can spend in the sun.
3. Re-Apply. Re-Apply. Re-Apply.
How frequently you put sunscreen on is key to protecting your child. Sunscreen absorbs UV radiation by converting it into heat. Once the sunscreen has been converted, it dissipates and has no more protection.
4. Know your zinc.
Have you noticed the lack of the word "sunblock” on the shelves lately? Sunscreens can no longer be labeled as “sunblocks” because it simply is not true. Sunscreens absorb UV radiation and dissipate it, whereas sunblock would reflect it like tin foil would. However, two ingredients, zinc and titanium dioxide, actually scatter and reflect UV rays like a layer of armor. These mineral ingredients are the key to safe and effective sun protection.
5. Understand water resistance.
If your child is swimming, look for a water-resistant formula that either states 40 or 80 minutes of resistance in water. Labels can no longer say "waterproof" or "sweat proof" because it simply is not true. Reapplication is key, even if you have to pull the kids out of the water for a break to make it happen.
6. Use hats and sunglasses.
Just like adults, children should be in hats and sunglasses when outside. I put a hat and sunglasses by the door so they can just grab them, but I’m constantly reminding my kids to remember them.
7. Use clothing for coverage, but know its limits.
A basic white t-shirt has an SPF of 5. Clothing doesn’t necessarily protect, especially if it’s old, stretched or wet. UV protective fabrics are great, but they have to be washed carefully to maintain their protective capability. Some fabrics lose their UV protectiveness when washed. Always put sunscreen under your child's bathing suit.
8. Look for the shady spots.
Help lobby for camps, schools and public playgrounds to create more shady spots for play. Encourage your kids to seek out the shady spots during peak hours.
9. Avoid peak sun time.
This is very difficult with active children, but try to stay out of the direct sun at peak sun times, which is roughly from 10am-4pm.
10. Get annual checkups from infancy.
Even young children can grow misshapen moles that need attending to.
The goal is to have children learn sun safety early on and to apply sunscreen before going into the sun whether at school, home, camp or elsewhere. It should be part of their daily routine, part of their daily gear. Let’s begin the education process early.
Look out for information this month from EWG’s Sun Safety Campaign about how to live a healthy, sun-safe lifestyle.