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Keeping Kids Safe in the Sun

Avoid risks like skin damage and cancer, or melanoma, this summer by seeking shade, wearing shirts, hats, sunglasses – and, of course, sunscreen

When another bleak Michigan winter is done, families are eager to soak up the warm weather. But not so fast. Several hours of fun in the sun can lead to a lifetime of damaged skin, premature aging and skin cancer, or melanoma, dermatologists warn. Understand the risks – and how to avoid shield your children from them.

The risks

Aside from skin cancers, long-term sun exposure is responsible for changes in the skin's texture, color, blood supply and development.

"The majority of sun damage occurs during childhood," says Dr. Linda Stein Gold, director of clinical dermatology research at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. "Children can still have fun, but it's important to protect them in the sun."

The American Academy of Dermatology, or AAD, estimates that kids get 80 percent of their total sun damage by age 18.

Several factors increase the skin cancer risk: fair complexion, family history of skin cancer, multiple or atypical moles and excessive exposure to UV radiation. The AAD says several bad childhood sunburns may lay the foundation for skin cancer and recommends keeping infants under 6 months out of direct sunlight.

Melanoma accounts for only about 4 percent of skin cancer cases but causes the majority of skin cancer deaths. However, when caught early and treated early, most patients do very well. Melanoma is the No. 1 cancer for young adults ages 25-29, and the second-most common cancer for ages 15-25.

Think location

You don't have to sunbathe to damage your skin. Participating in outdoor sports can cause overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, which can lead to skin cancer, as well as premature aging. Baseball, golf and tennis players often are played during the midday sun, when the sun's damaging rays are the strongest.

Indoor tanning beds also carry a risk. "It's important that teens avoid tanning beds," says Stein Gold. "They have the same UV light that causes skin cancer and wrinkling, which will make you look older."

Protection vitals

"Make sure you protect your child's skin," says West Bloomfield dermatologist D'Anne Kleinsmith. "They'll thank you for it later."

Dermatologists use a series of S's to remind their patients about sun safety: seek shade, slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, and wear sunglasses.

  • "Seek shade," especially in the middle of the day when the sun's rays are strongest.
  • "Slip on a shirt" reminds people to use protective clothing to guard as much skin as possible when outdoors. Newer sun protective fabrics are lightweight and provide coverage.
  • "Sun protective clothing is great, even while swimming," says Stein Gold. "Also, wear hat and sunglasses for full protection." Kleinsmith adds that the type of hat counts: Wide-brimmed styles provide shade to sensitive areas like the ears and neck, and the material makes a difference, too. "Tighter weave fabrics block more sun," she says.
  • "Slop on sunscreen" means apply a generous amount (about a shot-glass full) before going outdoors and reapply after swimming, toweling dry or sweating. Use sunscreen even on hazy or overcast days. Stein Gold recommends sunscreens with a minimum of SPF 15. "Also look for those with UVA and UVB coverage," she says. "Reapply every two hours, and more frequently if swimming."

What about vitamin D?

Among dermatologists, there is some discussion about the risks versus the potential benefits of sun exposure. Vitamin D is produced in the body by exposure to sunlight. Although our bodies need vitamin D to build and maintain strong and healthy bodies, most dermatologists do not recommend getting vitamin D from natural sunlight exposure or from artificial indoor tanning lights.

"The American Academy of Dermatology feels that you should get vitamin D safely through a healthy diet that may include vitamin supplements," Stein Gold says. "Don't seek the sun."

The AAD believes that getting vitamin D from a balanced diet including vitamin D-fortified foods and beverages, or from vitamin supplements and practicing sun protection, is a healthier alternative. Good dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, cheeses and yogurt, fortified cereal and oily fish like salmon and tuna.

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