The seeds of skin cancer are planted early. Two in three Australians will develop the disease by the time they are 70. Having blistering sunburn as a child can significantly increase your risk of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
As a mum, it’s facts like these that freak me out because my husband, Gary, has had skin cancer multiple times, the first when he was just 20. So far his cancers have been basal- and squamous-cell carcinomas, which are usually less dangerous than melanoma. However, our 17-month-old son, Noah, has inherited Gary’s light complexion and blue eyes, and possibly his predisposition towards skin cancer. Fortunately, we now know a lot more about the sun’s dangers than parents did when Gary was growing up.
When we take Noah out, we try to follow the latest sun-protection advice, which is important for all kids, not just those with fair skin. We avoid spending time outside in the direct sun between 10am and 3pm, when ultraviolet (UV) rays are at their strongest. (A good rule of thumb is to seek shade if your shadow is shorter than you are, says Dr Lawrence F. Eichenfield, a paediatric dermatologist.) We keep Noah in a shaded stroller and dress him in a hat, baby sunglasses, and loose clothing with a tight weave to block the sun. We also buy special sun-protective clothing that he wears on beach days. And, of course, we slather on the sunscreen.
Taking these measures should make a difference, assures paediatric dermatologist Dr Jody Alpert Levine. “The risk of basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinomas is directly related to sun exposure, whereas melanoma also has a strong genetic component. So if parents practise careful sun protection, their child should be fine.”
Still, as straightforward as it seems, most of us have questions – especially about sunscreen. We turned to leading experts for answers.
A: Both you and your little one should wear an SPF30+, broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen. SPF (which stands for sun protection factor) measures how many times that a product increases your skin’s natural sun barrier, Dr Eichenfield explains. The term broad-spectrum means the product not only guards against burning UVB rays, but also some UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the skin and cause skin cancer as well as wrinkling and premature aging.
Q: Is sunscreen enough to protect my littlie?
A: “Sunscreen is an important sun-protection measure, but it shouldn’t be used as the only line of defence against the sun,” says Professor Ian Olver, Cancer Council Australia CEO. “Sunscreen should always be used in conjunction with other sun-protection measures such as seeking shade, wearing sun-protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses.” When it comes to clothing, specially designed clothing with a UPF (ultraviolet protection) of 50+ is ideal at the beach, otherwise try to choose close-weave clothing, which will offer more protection than clothing you can see through. As for your child’s hat, think of it as her own personal patch of shade! It should protect her face, head, neck and ears. “Broad-brimmed or bucket-style hats made of close-weave fabric offer the best protection. Baseball caps aren’t recommended as they fail to shade most of the face, while ‘Legionnaire hats’ with flaps at the back are great for kids,” Professor Olver says.
A: “There’s no evidence that using sunscreen on babies is harmful,” Professor Olver says. “However, we recommend that infants are kept out of the sun or are well-protected from UV radiation by clothing, hats and shade, then sunscreen need only be used occasionally on very small areas of the skin.”
Look for children’s formulations, which are tailored to more sensitive skin. Be aware, too, that some littlies may develop minor skin irritation. True allergic reactions are very rare, but sunscreens formulated for sensitive skin are less likely to contain alcohol or fragrances that might irritate the skin.
Q: How much sunscreen does my child really need for adequate protection?
A: Probably more than you think! Studies have shown that most people don’t apply nearly enough sunscreen. “And if you use only a very thin coat of SPF30, you’re really only getting an SPF of 15,” explains Dr Elaine Siegfried, a professor of paediatrics and dermatology. The Cancer Council recommends that grown-ups use around a half-teaspoon of sunscreen when applying it to the face, neck and ears, a teaspoon for each arm and leg, and then a teaspoon each for the front and back of the torso. Children need about half of this amount.
A: “Sunscreen should be applied at least 20 minutes before you go outside, should be applied generously, rubbed in lightly and reapplied every two hours,” Professor Olver advises. Regardless of how water-resistant the label says your sunscreen is, you should also reapply it after your child has been in the water, as towel-drying can rub it off.
Q: Do sprays work as well as lotions do?
A: Yes, if you use them properly. Watch out that you don’t use too little spray sunscreen, especially on windy days when it tends to blow away. Apply liberally and reapply every two hours.
A: You do, as there’s no such thing as a healthy tan. “A tan is a sign that the skin has been damaged by UV light,” explains paediatric dermatologist Dr Dawn Davis.
Q: Should I be putting sunscreen on my child’s scalp as well?
A: “The best protection for your child’s scalp is a broad-brimmed hat,” says Professor Olver, but there are also spray sunscreens made specifically for the scalp and hair. These penetrate the hair and make it to the scalp without leaving the hair stiff or greasy.
A: Sunscreen lip balms are great for this, while coloured zincs are always fun! Again, a broad-brimmed hat will help keep your tyke’s face and lips in the shade.
Q: Do we need sunscreen if it’s cloudy?
A: Absolutely. UV radiation can be high even on cool and overcast days and this can be particularly dangerous, because you mightn’t realise you’re burning. This means you can’t rely on clear skies to determine when sun protection is needed. “An easy way to check whether you need sunscreen is to remember the number three,” Professor Olver says. “When the UV Index is three or above, you need sun protection.”
You can find the UV Index on the weather pages of metro newspapers, on the Cancer Council Australia homepage, or the Bureau of Meteorology website. You can also download SunSmart, a free UV-alert app, for your smartphone.
A: The body needs exposure to the sun in order to produce vitamin D, which helps maintain good health. Using sun protection won’t put you at risk of vitamin D deficiency, though, Professor Olver assures. “For most people, adequate vitamin D levels are reached through regular daily activity and incidental exposure to the sun.” As a guide, during summer most people are fine with a few minutes of sunlight on their face, arms and hands on most days of the week (outside of peak UV periods). In winter, two to three hours spread over the week is adequate if you live in the southern states. In the north of Australia, going about your daily activities will do the job!
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