One out of three teenagers say they tan because it looks healthy, but according to the Centers for Disease Control, less than one-third of American youths practice effective sun protection.
Exposure to the sun is dangerous behavior. New research shows that even a mild to moderate increase in sun exposure over an extended period, with or without sunburn, may significantly spur the growth of pigmented moles in children, thereby greatly increasing their risk of skin cancers. “Teens may be especially susceptible to skin cancer because their cells are dividing and changing more rapidly than those of adults,” says the Skin Cancer Foundation.
While summer is perfect for spending time outdoors, it’s important to minimize risks associated with fun in the sun. Treatment with FDA-approved products can certainly help manage sun exposure, but prevention is the best bet to avoid the ill effects of the sun.
Everyone is at risk for skin cancer – particularly people with light skin color, light hair or eye color, a family history of skin cancer, chronic sun exposure or freckles, says the American Cancer Foundation. A history of sunburns early in life has also been linked with skin cancer, so all the more reason to ensure your child limits sun exposure, wears protective clothing, and uses sunscreen.
Sunscreen is formulated to protect the skin against the sun’s ultraviolet light (UV), not to help skin tan. Sunscreen should be applied liberally 30 minutes before going outdoors and reapplied at least every two hours. Use water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 – the higher, the better. Red-headed or fair-skinned children should use a sunscreen with a minimum 30 SPF. (Note: Babies younger than 6 months should not be exposed to direct sunlight. If that’s not possible, sunscreen may be applied to small areas including their faces and backs of their hands.)
Summer is also a good time to invest in a wide-brimmed hat – sunglasses, too, which protect the sensitive skin around the eyes. For children, look for sunglasses that offer at least 99 percent UV protection. And remember, it is possible to get a sunburn even on a cloudy day, so it’s important to apply sunscreen every day.
If your child does get a sunburn, apply a cold compress (not ice or butter!) to the burned area several times a day to reduce pain and burning. A package of frozen vegetables will also do the trick. For larger sunburns, give a cool bath for 10 minutes, avoiding any chill. You can also add 2 ounces of baking soda per tub, but avoid soap on the sunburn.
Applying 80 percent to 90 percent aloe vera gels can also lessen the pain of a sunburn and prevent burns from deepening if applied early. The actual juice squeezed from an aloe vera plant works the same way.
Ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory medicine, can be given for pain relief to children older than 6 months. If started within six hours of sun exposure, and continued for two days, ibuprofen can reduce swelling and discomfort.
Steroid cream, such as 1 percent hydrocortisone cream, should be applied as soon as possible, up to three times per day. It may also reduce swelling and pain if used early and continued for two days.
If skin blisters, avoid breaking them to prevent infection. If the blisters break, trim off dead skin with fine scissors cleaned with rubbing alcohol. Use an antibiotic ointment such as Polysporin for any large, open blisters. Remove ointment with warm water and reapply twice a day for three days.
The good news is, pain usually stops after two to three days. Peeling generally occurs about day 5 to 7.
Be sure to hydrate often – sunburn can cause dehydration, so keep the fluids coming.
Finally, be sure to call your doctor if pain becomes severe, the sunburn looks infected or your child becomes worse.
The Skin Cancer Foundation offers information on “Treating Sunburn in Children”
Information on teens and tanning is available at skincancer.org