Although most cases of skin cancer occur in adults, with the highest frequency among older adults, skin cancer is a children’s health issue as well because prevention should begin in childhood.
Because children typically spend greater amounts of time outdoors than adults do, especially in the summer, most people get between 60% and 80% of their total lifetime exposure to the sun before they reach the age of 18. Therefore, exposure to the sun during childhood and adolescence can have profound effects on later skin cancer risk. Excessive exposure to the sun during childhood increases the risk of several forms of skin cancer, including the potentially deadly melanoma.
It is important for parents to protect young children from excess exposure to the sun and to teach older children to protect themselves. Even a few bad sunburns (the kind that cause blisters) in childhood can increase the risk of developing skin cancer later.
Sun Protection for Infants
Parents need to be extremely careful to protect infants from the sun because an infant’s skin is thinner and more sensitive than adult skin, allowing infants to get sunburned more easily. This includes darker-skinned infants. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants younger than 6 months old should be kept out of the sun. When infants are outdoors, they should wear clothing that covers their bodies, including a hat with a brim. (The brim is important because it covers the ears and helps to shade the face.) Sunscreen can be used if the baby cannot be kept covered and in the shade, but parents should test the baby for sensitivity to ingredients in the sunscreen in advance. This can be done by applying a small amount of sunscreen to one area of the skin and watching for any reaction.
Sun Protection for Older Children and Teenagers
For older children and teenagers, all the standard precautions against excess sun exposure apply – such as wearing protective clothing and hats; using a waterproof sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 15 and protects against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays; putting sunscreen on ahead of time before going outdoors; and avoiding sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Like sun exposure, indoor tanning is a risk factor for skin cancer. Parents should be aware that many indoor tanning establishments will accept teenage customers. In fact, each year, more than 2 million teenagers use indoor tanning. Although experts recommend that minors should not be allowed to use indoor tanning equipment, only half of all U.S. states have any regulations regarding the use of indoor tanning equipment by people who are under legal age. Parents should make sure that their teenage children do not patronize indoor tanning establishments or use indoor tanning equipment such as sun lamps at home.