Early childhood is a time to enjoy the outdoors, but it is not a time to increase the risk of skin cancer. Unfortunately, children are unable to protect themselves against the risk of sunburn. It is our job as caregivers to protect them.
The incidence of melanoma (a form of skin cancer) is on the rise in the United States. William Reilly of the Environmental Protection Agency says that deaths from skin cancer may increase as much as 20 times over the next several decades. This can be attributed in large part to the fact that the ozone layer (a region of the upper atmosphere) is thinning. The ozone normally absorbs solar ultraviolet radiation. As the ozone layer thins, our exposure to ultraviolet radiation increases.
Just one or two severe sunburns in childhood can significantly increase a person’s chances of developing skin cancer later in life. Two types of solar radiation reach the Earth’s surface. Both Ultraviolet A and Ultraviolet B radiation (UVA and UVB) can damage the skin. UVB burns the skin quickly, while UVA burns the skin over time. Both types of radiation are present year-round. While most people burn faster in the summer months, on cloudy days as much as 80 percent of the burning rays still reach the Earth. Therefore, it is important to be conscious of sun protection throughout the year.
Children who have light skin, live in the southwest states, live at high altitudes, have many moles at birth, or have family histories of skin cancer are particularly at risk. Caucasians develop melanoma most frequently, but African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics are at risk as well. All children, no matter what their skin shade, should be protected. While it is best to stay out of the sun between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM, when rays are the strongest, this is often difficult to do.
The next best thing is to have a policy of applying sunscreen to all children before they go out to play. Sunscreen lotions should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. This means that if it normally takes a child 20 minutes to develop a sunburn, it will take 15 times as long (300 minutes) with SPF 15 sunscreen applied. Sunscreen should be applied at least 30 minutes before going outside and needs to be reapplied after water play. It is easiest to apply sunscreen before dressing.
Long sleeves with a tight weave and wide-brimmed hats also offer increased protection. Several products on the market are designed especially for children’s sensitive skin--but read the directions carefully. Most sunscreen products should not be used on children six months or younger because their tiny bodies may absorb chemicals through the skin. Always consult with a pediatrician before using sunscreen on children younger thansix months.
Because it is time-consuming to apply sunscreen to each child, attempt to educate parents about the importance of sun protection and have parents apply sunscreen to their children before they are sent to school each day. Post a reminder to parents near your sign-in sheet. Also, keep a bottle of sunscreen available for when parents forget to protect their children. If asked, many parents will donate sunscreen to your center, helping defray your cost. Specify SPF and brand to ensure that appropriate sunscreen products are donated.
Delaine Certo is director of Palms Westminster Nursery School in Los Angeles, California.