Don't get burned by the sun

May 16, 2008

Too much exposure to the bright rays of summer can cause skin cancer

Over-exposure to the sun greatly increases the risk of developing non-melanoma skin cancer — the most common form of cancer in the United States — and several studies have associated severe childhood or adolescent sunburns with the development of malignant melanoma, a potentially lethal form of skin cancer, later in life.

Protecting children from sun damage at an early age develops good habits and it may reduce the incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer later, says Dr. Patricia Hicks, a pediatrician at Children's and associate professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern.

"Forming a sun protection habit early in life is similar to seatbelt use," she said. "It is protective during childhood, but it also increases the likelihood that children will continue to practice those good habits later in life."

To achieve effective sun protection, Dr. Hicks recommends families:

  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 to 30.
  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors.
  • Reapply sunscreen every one to two hours when outdoors, especially after swimming, perspiring or towel-drying.
  • Avoid mid-day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) sun, whenever possible.
  • Seek shade.
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses that block 99-100 percent of ultraviolet rays, and shirts made of tight weave material.
  • Keep infants out of direct sunlight.
  • Use these protective measures even on cloudy days and in the non-summer months.

Sunscreen vs. sunblock

Chemical sunscreens act as a filter to absorb ultraviolet light in a specific range. Most chemical sunscreens absorb UVB radiation, and some absorb some UVA radiation and may provide UVA protection.

Physical sunblocks (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) act as a barrier to deflect the ultraviolet light. They protect consistently and effectively against both UVA and UVB radiation. Sunblocks are opaque, but more transparent micronized forms are now available. Sunblocks also tend to be less irritating when applied to sensitive skin, such as the face, and do not tend to cause allergic reactions.

Proper techniques

Dr. Hicks said some common mistakes include not applying an adequate amount of sunscreen and neglecting the following areas:

  • Ears
  • Neck
  • Tops of the feet
  • Exposed scalp

While there is no quick cure for minor sunburn, the AAD suggests moist compresses, tub baths and soothing lotions to provide some relief.

Protecting infants

If shade is unavailable to protect an infant, Dr. Hicks recommends using an umbrella or placing a blanket or towel over the carrier to provide protection from the sun. Dressing infants in protective clothing and hats and using protective shields on car windows is also recommended.


Facts About Sunburn
American Academy of Dermatology