May 29, 2005

Even Kids Aren’t Safe From Skin Cancer

One bad burn can have dangerous consequences years later, experts say

As the summer season kicks off with the long holiday weekend, kids across the United States are preparing for months of outdoor fun, from planning a tree fort to shopping for bikinis.

However, doctors warn that fun could have long-term consequences if kids don't properly protect themselves from the sun's rays.

Children who suffer just one severe, blistering sunburn have doubled their chances of getting skin cancer, according to medical experts.

What's more, a survey sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 43 percent of white children under age 12 had at least one sunburn in the past year.

"You can recover from a sunburn, but there's still damage that has occurred," said Dr. Deborah S. Sarnoff, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at New York University, a clinical consultant in the dermatology branch of the National Institutes of Health and an educational spokeswoman for the Skin Cancer Foundation. "Even though our skin cells turn over constantly, there's cumulative damage."

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. More than a million people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, and current estimates say 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will have skin cancer at least once.

More than 90 percent of all skin cancers are caused by sun exposure -- specifically, exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation.

The sun is so directly linked to skin cancer that cases vary depending on the weather and sunlight of different regions, according to the American Cancer Society. For example, skin cancer is more common in Texas than in Minnesota, and the world's highest rates are found in South Africa and Australia.

Anyone can get skin cancer, but the risk is greatest for people who have fair skin that freckles easily. Folks with red or blond hair and blue or light-colored eyes should be particularly wary.

The two most common kinds of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, with basal cell carcinoma accounting for more than 90 percent of all skin cancers in the United States. These cancers affect the two types of cells that make up the outer layers of the skin's surface; they're slow-growing and rarely spread to other parts of the body.

Less common but much more deadly is melanoma, a cancer that affects melanocytes, cells deep inside the epidermis that produce the coloring agent melanin.

Melanoma is much more likely to become malignant and spread to other parts of the body. Nearly 10,000 people died from skin cancer in 2004, and most of those died from melanoma, according to the CDC.

Most skin cancers appear after age 50, but the sun's damaging effects begin at an early age, according to the American Cancer Society. Protection should start in childhood to prevent skin cancer later in life.

It's a tough job, Sarnoff said. "Children's skin is thinner, more sensitive and delicate," she said. "It's much easier to get a sunburn as a kid than as an adult."

The best way to prevent skin cancer is to stay indoors when the sun's rays are at their strongest. Whenever possible, people should avoid exposure to the midday sun, roughly from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. standard time or 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daylight saving time.

If you must go out, you should shield as much of your body as possible from ultraviolet radiation, said Dr. Martin Weinstock, chairman of the American Cancer Society's skin cancer advisory group, a professor of dermatology at Brown University and chief of dermatology at the VA Medical Center in Providence, R.I.

"We have a slogan -- Slip, Slop, Slap," Weinstock said. "Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat."

True coverage involves wearing as many clothes as possible, Sarnoff said. Sunblock is important, but it doesn't protect nearly well as clothing.

If your children are using sunblock, remember to reapply it every two hours if they are playing a sport or participating in some other activity that causes them to sweat, she said. And if they swim, they should reapply sunblock as soon as they come out of the water.

"We think teaching your kids proper sunblock use is as important as teaching them to brush their teeth or comb their hair," Sarnoff said. "It's basic grooming."

Parents also should remember that the sun is a risk even on cool spring or autumn days, Weinstock said.

"It's not the heat, it's the UV rays," he said. "Spring is a particularly important time to be careful. It may be cool out, and you may still need protection."

More information

New York University

National Institutes of Health

Skin Cancer Foundation

To learn more about preventing skin cancer, visit the American Cancer Society.