It is well known that exposure to the sun is the key risk factor for developing skin cancer. And while most parents are aware that applying sunscreen to their children is important, many go wrong by not taking the time to choose the most effective sunscreen, or they don't understand the limitations of sunscreen.
"Young, developing skin may be particularly vulnerable to UV rays," said Lawrence Eichenfield, MD, chief of pediatric and adolescent dermatology at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego. "If your child is getting intense sun exposure playing outdoors, she's in danger of developing melanoma -- the most serious type of skin cancer -- even if she has what appears to be a healthy tan."
Parents should consider the following to make the best sunscreen choice:
•Sun Protection Factor (SPF) -- Pick an SPF of 15 or higher. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection from sunburn caused mostly by UVB rays, not UVA. Also, the higher SPF does not increase the length of time for sun exposure.
•UVA protection -- Most sunscreens protect against UVB, but not UVA. UVA has a longer wavelength, less energy, but is more mutagenic (i.e. cancer-causing) than UVB. Products that contain Oxobenzone or Avobenzone (Parsol) can block UVA, but may break down under the sun and thus only offers no more than 4 hours of UVA protection. Mexoryl is a newer addition to sunscreen ingredients that does not break down in the sun. Another new ingredient, Helioplex, helps stabilize Parsol and allows up to 6 hours of UVA protection. Look for these ingredients in your sunscreen or the AAD SEAL OF RECOGNITION on sunscreen products to ensure protection against UVA.
•Hypoallergenic sunscreen -- Most allergic reactions against sunscreen are caused by para-aminobenzoid acid (PABA). If your child has a reaction against sunscreen, try products that do not contain PABA, dyes or perfumes. Also, sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc dioxide provide physical block that reflects both UVA and UVB and has no chemical ingredients suitable for those with prior reactions to sunscreen.
•Non-comedogenic sunscreen -- For oily skin, try products that are labeled with "won't clog pores" or "non-comedogenic" to reduce acne caused by sunscreen.
•Lip sunscreen -- It is also important to protect your lips from the sun! Choose a lip balm with SPF 15 or higher.
•New advances in sunscreen technology -- Scientists are coming up with sunscreen containing vitamins C and E, which help boost the skin's defenses against UV damage. There is also a sunscreen "pill," called Heliocare, that can offer up to 3 hours of protection. These are currently meant to supplement sunscreens and not to replace them.
Of course, the best way to avoid sunburn and skin damage is to avoid the sun entirely, especially between 10am and 4pm, the period of the day when sunrays are strongest.
"As a dermatologist I see the effects that sun damage causes to skin; damage can occur at any age and babies can be even more susceptible to the sun," said Dr. Eichenfield. "I recommend parents and babies practice sun protection every day to avoid a lifetime of cumulative sun exposure. It is also important to use a variety of sun protection measures to protect themselves and their children when out in the sun including proper application of a physical sunblock, protective clothing, and seeking shade during peak sun hours."
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