While rare in childhood, skin cancer does not only affect adults and the incidence of melanoma among children and adolescents has been increasing over the past several decades. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that between 1973 and 2009, the incidence of melanoma in children and adolescents increased by 2 percent per year. Thus, it is extremely important that we increase awareness and encourage good sun-protection behavior starting at even a young age.
Many parents have questions about how they can best protect their children from the sun. Often questions arise about what sunscreen to use and how to apply it. There are new U.S. Food and Drug Administration sunscreen labeling rules. Understanding what to look for on the sunscreen label is important.
Some frequently asked questions are:
What sunscreen should I use?
Sunscreens are divided into those that are chemical blockers and those that are physical blockers. Chemical blockers contain ingredients such as benzones and absorb ultraviolet radiation from the sun. The main ingredients in most physical blockers are zinc oxide and titanium oxide which reflect or scatter UV radiation.
Although physical blockers leave more of a white milky film on the skin, these are preferred in infants and children with sensitive skin. You want to look for sunscreens that have a sun protective factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Make sure the sunscreen says it provides “broad spectrum” coverage against both UVA and UVB radiation.
Can I use a sunscreen spray?
The safety and efficacy of sunscreen sprays is still being investigated by the FDA. You may not be applying enough sunscreen when using a spray. There are also concerns about the potential side effects if it were to be inhaled. Avoidance of sunscreen sprays is recommended until further information is available.
How often do I need to apply sunscreen during the day?
Sunscreen should be reapplied every 2 hours. It should also be reapplied after swimming. Sunscreens are no longer able to state that they are “waterproof.”
I have a three-month-old infant.
Can I use sunscreen on my child’s skin?
Sunscreens are not advised in infants younger than 6 months of age. Infants in this age group should be kept out of the sun and in sun-protective clothing and hats.
What else I can do to protect my child from the sun?
In addition to the use of sunscreen, children should also wear wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and sun-protective clothing. More and more companies are now making sun-protective clothing so it is easier to find. One should stay in the shade as much as possible and avoid the sun midday, during its peak hours of intensity.
What about tanning salons?
Indoor tanning should be avoided. Like natural sunlight, the ultraviolet radiation from indoor tanning devices, such as tanning beds, is harmful to your skin and increases your risk of developing skin cancer.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, “studies have found a 75 percent increase in the risk of melanoma in those who have been exposed to UV radiation from indoor tanning.”
Children, like adults, should have periodic skin examinations by a dermatologist, especially if there is a family history of dysplastic (atypical) moles, melanoma, or other skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma.
Parents should also periodically look at their child’s skin at home and call their dermatologist if they notice any changes.
Lauren Geller, M.D.
Instructor, Dermatology and Pediatrics
Director of Pediatric Dermatology
The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
5 East 98th St., 5th floor
New York, NY 10029-6189
Tel: (212) 241-9728