Many Kids Still Not Using Sunscreen
January 24, 2012

Many Kids Still Not Using Sunscreen

Health experts recommend that people of all ages use sunscreens regularly to prevent skin cancer; yet, a new study shows that only 25 percent of kids regularly apply sunscreen when going outside in the sun.

Researchers, led by Stephen Dusza, an epidemiologist with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, questioned 360 fifth-grade children in 2004 and then re-surveyed them three years later. In the first survey, more than half of the kids said they had experienced at least one sunburn. The second survey showed the same results. They were also asked how much time they spent in the sun and how often they applied sunscreen.

Published in the journal Pediatrics, the study found that older children reported spending more time in the sun and using sunscreen less often. Nearly half of the children who routinely used sunscreen in the initial survey no longer used it in the follow-up three years later, and only 25 percent of the entire group continued to use sunscreen regularly.

A seemingly, and shockingly, apparent reason many of the study participants didn´t regularly use sunscreen was because they liked the appearance of a tan, and the number of children who said they spent time in the sun to get a tan increased over the three-year period.

These findings highlight the importance of finding effective ways to educate children about sun safety and the potential dangers of long-term exposure to ultraviolet light.

“When you ask kids or teens about tanning, they say people look better with a tan, and tanning has a very positive association in kids of this age, so trying to get them to limit this behavior is a difficult message to get across,” Dusza said.

“This is the age group we need to make an impact on, because it gets harder to make an impact as they get into their later teen and early adult years,” Dr. Jonette Keri, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Miami´s Miller School of Medicine, told Kim Carollo of ABC News Good Morning America.

But experts agree that children at this age are often hard to influence on significant health issues, such as sun safety.

“It´s a time where parents don´t have as much control and kids do what they want. Their mortality is not something they think about, and there are also a lot of things we´re telling them not to do,” Dr. Michel McDonald, director of cosmetic dermatology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, told Carollo. “We need to get them to start early, and if they do that, it will become one of their habits.”

Dusza said he plans to follow the same group of children up until their senior year. He and colleagues plan to enroll more children for future research to better understand kids´ sun protection habit and to hopefully learn how to develop more effective campaigns against prolonged sun exposure in children.

“Along with educational efforts in physicians´ offices and schools, further studies are required to learn how to interweave enhanced sun-protection policies in settings such as beaches, after-school sites, and sporting events frequented by preadolescents and adolescents,” Dusza and colleagues wrote.

This study follows up on another recent study that showed that children who have sunburn at an early age are nearly twice as likely to develop melanoma in adulthood. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, is responsible for roughly 9,000 deaths in the US each year.

Exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun or even from tanning beds is the biggest modifiable risk factor for melanoma.

In Dusza´s study, researchers deduced that the 11 to 14 age group is the most critical time in developing attitudes about tanning and wearing sunscreen, especially among girls. Girls are more than twice as likely to report a tan at age 14 than at age 11. They are also more likely to say they spent time in the sun in the previous summer.

By the time all children in the study were age 14, they were 60 to 70 percent less likely to say they “often or always” wore sunscreen at the beach or pool the previous summer than when they were 11.

“Of most concern, it appears that groups at highest risk of skin cancer, very fair/fair children and those who obtained tans, were more likely to increase their sunburns during this crucial period,” said Dusza.

Sophie J. Balk, MD, a pediatrician at Children´s Hospital at Montefiore in NYC, says wearing sunscreen should be one part of a total skin cancer prevention program for teens. There are a number of other ways to protect skin from damaging effects of the sun, such as wearing protective clothing, limiting outdoor activities between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., wearing sunglasses to protect eyes, and wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect the face and neck from the sun.

“Parents should understand that a tan is a sign of a problem and set an example for their kids by getting into the habit of sun protection so hopefully it becomes a lifelong habit for their children,” Balk told WebMD.


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