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Health blog

Watch Out for Summer Sun

Summer’s here and like so many other people, you and your children might be planning some together time in the sun. Maybe it’s a trip to the lake, the mountains, or maybe you’re headed to the nearest beach. Before leaving home, take a few minutes to talk about the sun and how to prevent damaging sunburn.

The ultraviolet radiation (UV radiation) found in sunlight is the primary cause of skin cancer. Having even one blistering sunburn as a child increases the risk for melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. More than one million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year. If they’re lucky, it’s “only” basal cell or squamous cell cancer, potentially disfiguring but seldom fatal. However, melanoma kills about 8,650 people per year and its incidence is steadily increasing. It’s now the second most common cancer among teens and young adults.

Sunlight is not the only source of UV radiation. Many young people turn to tanning beds. The tanning industry sometimes denies that UV radiation from tanning beds is harmful. Yet in 2009, the World Health Organization’s cancer research agency moved tanning beds to the carcinogenic (cancer-causing) category. Included in the same category are asbestos, cigarettes, and plutonium! According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, tanning beds may produce 10 to 15 times more UV radiation than the midday sun. Many states are considering laws to prohibit people under 18 from using tanning beds.

Here are some ways to decrease the risk of skin cancer caused by excessive UV radiation. Limit sun exposure between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm when the sun is at its brightest. Scientists developed the UV index to guide people about the risk of UV radiation at any given location on any given day. The risk runs from low to extreme. For example, a sunny day in Sacramento, California on May 6, 2011 showed a UV index of 9 (very high.) Check the UV index for your area at: www.epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html.

Use this mantra to limit UV radiation: Slip-Slop-Slap . . . and Wrap. Slip into a long-sleeved cotton shirt to cover as much of the skin as possible. Slop on sunscreen every two hours. A Consumer Reports poll found that one fourth of Americans rarely or never use sunscreen on their children. And often people who do use it, don’t use enough. Use about one ounce for an adult, proportionately less for children. Apply sunscreen half an hour before going outside, and reapply every two hours. Slap on a wide-brimmed hat to protect the scalp, neck, and ears. Wrap UV-blocking sunglasses around your face. Children should wear real sunglasses, not toy plastic ones.

Be especially careful when taking children to the mountains, beaches, and lakes. UV radiation increases 4% to 5% for every 1000 feet in elevation. For example, Lake Tahoe is about 6,000 feet high, meaning that people are exposed to as much as 30% more UV radiation than in California's Central Valley. Keep in mind that water, sand, and snow reflect sunlight, making for a dangerous double-whammy dose of UV radiation.

Take care of yourself and the young people in your life. Tanned skin is damaged skin. While ultraviolet radiation is not the only cause of skin cancer, it is the only cause that is completely preventable.


For more information: American Academy of Dermatology: www.aad.org; American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org; Skin Cancer Foundation: www.skincancer.org.

References: American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement – Ultraviolet Radiation: a Hazard to Children and Adolescents: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/full/127/3/588; and Goldsmith C, USA Today Health Reports: Skin Cancer; Lerner Publishing, 2011.
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