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Pediatric Health

Protecting Kids From More Than Just Sunburns

Prevention Now Can Save Lives Later

April 01, 2010
One blistering sunburn does more than just hurt your young child in the short term. It more than doubles your child's chances of developing melanoma skin cancer later in life.

While skin cancer is very rarely diagnosed during childhood, research has shown that skin cancer can be traced back to that time in a person's life. Non-melanoma cancer is associated with repetitive sun exposure, and melanoma skin cancer is often the result of intermittent sunburn—typically before age 18.

One blistering sunburn does more than just hurt your young child in the short term. It more than doubles your child's chances of developing melanoma skin cancer later in life.
"This is a clear example of how what you do as a child affects you later in life," says Beth Brogan, M.D., a dermatologist who works with Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St.Vincent.

Because most kids have already absorbed between 50 and 80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure before age 18, it's even more important that parents do all they can to protect their children while they're young and reduce their chance of developing skin cancer.

"Skin cancer is generally very preventable, unlike many forms of pediatric and even some adult cancers," says Heather Escoto, MD, a pediatric oncologist with Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent. "Prevention is an exciting word for a pediatric oncologist. If you can take precautions for your child to prevent a form of cancer later in life, then you should take every measure to do so. "

Dr. Escoto cautions that, while very rare, melanoma skin cancer can occur in children and teenagers, making it important to have any suspicious skin lesions on your child evaluated by his or her pediatrician and dermatologist.

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Common mistakes in guarding against skin cancer

While most parents today seem to realize the importance of protecting skin from the sun's rays, there are still some common mistakes many make.

Common mistake #1: Infants and sunblock: Sunblock should not be used on children under 6 months of age. However, some misunderstand the why behind that rule. "Some parents have thought the issue was with the sunblock irritating the skin. But we don't advocate sunblock at that age because we don't want infants in the sun," Dr. Brogan explains. "No amount of sun is safe at that age."

Common mistake #2: Tanning beds: The next common mistake is at the other end of the age spectrum: teenagers. "Many parents let their older girls and boys use tanning beds, not realizing that tanning beds increase the risk of skin cancer," Dr. Brogan says. "The ultraviolet rays used in tanning beds are more likely to be associated with melanoma."

Common mistake #3: Tanning in general: While tanning is certainly better than sunburns, it is not without its risk. What most people don't realize is that tanning also is a sign of sun damage. "There's no such thing as a safe tan," says Dr. Brogan. "Tanning is the body's response to sun damage—it's just happening at a slower pace."

Sun safety

Neither Dr. Escoto nor Dr. Brogan would advocate keeping children out of the sun – it does provide Vitamin D – but simply to be smart about it.

• Use a physical sunblock with zinc oxide that protects against both UVA and UVB. "I use SPF 45 on my own children and recommend the same to my patients," Dr. Brogan shares.

• Don't forget the not-so-obvious places of the body: lips, ears, toes and scalp. (There are some sunblocks available in aerosol or gel that are made for the head and scalp.)

• Use generous portions of sunblock—about a half ounce per average size child.

• Apply sunblock 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating. (Consider waterproof sunscreen if your children will be around water or swimming. Waterproof sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water.)

• Consider using UPH sun protected shirts—especially for boys.

• Put on hats, shirts, sunglasses and sunblock when outside, and seek the shade during the hottest times of the day, generally 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.


The pediatric cancer program at Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St.Vincent is dedicated to the treatment and cure of young patients with all types of pediatric cancer. As members of the Children's Oncology Group, St. Vincent pediatric oncologists participate with this organization to utilize the most effective treatment plans for their patients. In addition, they work with in conjunction with a variety of pediatric specialists at St. Vincent to provide optimal care to their young patients.

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