Summer is a time for outdoor play. Whether at a cottage, a festival, the beach or the backyard, your family can catch some vitamin D-soaked rays in the coming months. But be warned: Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in Canada. Even one blistering sunburn in the first 15 years of a person’s life can more than double the chance of
melanoma — the deadliest type of skin cancer — down the road.
Darker skin contains more melanin, which offers some protection
from a small amount of ultraviolet (UV) damage, but not from sunburns, or the risk of developing a malignancy. That being said, sun exposure is especially dangerous for children with moles or freckles, very fair hair, and skin, or a family history of skin cancer. The sun emits UVA and UVB rays, both of which can be harmful to skin, but in different ways. UVA rays can travel through lightly woven clothing, and glass that doesn’t have UV coating, to penetrate deeply below the skin’s surface and cause irreversible problems and premature aging. UVB rays are the ones responsible for surface sunburns. Both types cause skin cancer. It’s not just sunburned that are dangerous. Tanning is an indication of damaged skin, sun exposure — whether you burn or not — increases your risk of skin cancer.
Most experts don’t recommend sunscreen for infants younger than six months. The lotion is meant to work with the skin, and an infant’s skin is too sensitive for sunscreen to be effective, no matter how high the sun protection factor (SPF). Babies skin simply cannot protect itself from the sun. Babies also have thinner skin and a higher surface-area-to-body-weight ratio, which makes them more susceptible to absorbing chemicals found in sunscreen, or having an allergic reaction. Keep babies in the shade instead, or covered with long-sleeved, light-coloured, densely woven clothing.
As kids get older, it’s time to get them accustomed to putting on sunscreen, and often. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, labelled “broad spectrum,” which means it protects from both UVA and UVB rays. It should be generously applied everywhere that will be exposed to the sun at least 20 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours, and if your kids are swimming or playing in the water, use a waterproof sunscreen and reapply once they towel off.
There have been reports that claim sunscreen has ingredients that could be carcinogenic, cause DNA damage leading to cancer, or cross the placenta and affect the developing fetus. Anatoli Freidman, Toronto dermatologist and medical director of the Toronto Dermatology Centre, says the claims are controversial. “There is no evidence that sunscreen leads to any health issues,” he says. “Sunscreen has been around for many years, without any evidence of harm. The benefits outweigh the risks.”
Sunscreen is a very important tool, but it’s only one of the tools. Wearing proper clothing for the sun can help a lot. A brimmed hat that shields the face, ears, and neck from the sun and protective shirts are great tools as well. Covering up with clothing is generally better than any sunscreen, but keep in mind that wet cloth can lose up to half of its UV protection, so keeping kids dry when they aren’t in the water is important. Sunglasses that block both types of UV rays, which can cause eye damage, are also a great addition to your arsenal. Sometimes only shade will do; bringing a children’s play tent to the beach to give your little one a little bit of a break from the sun.
Sun safety is a lesson best learned young, and the most effective way to teach your kids is to set a good example. If you’re applying sunscreen to them, apply it to yourself. If they need a hat, you probably need one, too!