While everybody needs some sun exposure to provide vitamin D, which helps in the absorption of calcium for stronger and healthier bones, unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause damage to the skin, eyes, and immune system, and can also cause cancer. Skin cancer is increasing at a dramatic rate, particularly among persons in their 20s. In fact, most children receive between 50 and 80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure before they reach the age of 18. Although there are other contributing factors, including heredity and environment, sunburn and excessive UV light does damage the skin, and this damage can lead to skin cancer.
Tanning is the skin's response to UV light - a protective reaction to prevent further injury to the skin from the sun. However, tanning does not prevent skin cancer.
Energy from the sun reaches the earth as visible, infrared, and ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Ultraviolet A (UVA) is made up of wavelengths 320 to 400 nanometers (nm) in length.
Ultraviolet B (UVB) wavelengths are 280 to 320 nm.
Ultraviolet C (UVC) wavelengths are 100 to 280 nm.
Only UVA and UVB ultraviolet rays reach the earth's surface. The earth's atmosphere absorbs UVC wavelengths.
UVB rays cause a much greater risk of skin cancer than UVA.
However, UVA rays cause aging, wrinkling, and loss of elasticity.
UVA also increases the damaging effects of UVB, including skin cancer and cataracts.
In most cases, ultraviolet rays react with a chemical called melanin, found in the skin. This is the first defense against the sun, as it is the melanin that absorbs the dangerous UV rays that can do serious skin damage. A sunburn develops when the amount of UV damage exceeds the protection that the skin's melanin can provide. While a small amount of exposure to sunlight is healthy and pleasurable, too much can be dangerous. Measures should be taken to prevent overexposure to sunlight in order to reduce the risks of cancers, premature aging of the skin, the development of cataracts, and other harmful effects.
The best means of protecting yourself against the damaging effects of the sun is by limiting exposure and protecting the skin.
The best way to prevent sunburn in children over 6 months of age is to follow the A, B, Cs recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology:
Stay away from the sun in the middle of the day. This is when the sun's rays are the most damaging.
Block the sun's rays using a SPF 15 or higher sunscreen. Apply the lotion 30 minutes before going outside and reapply it often during the day. Sunscreens should not be used on infants under 6 months of age.
Cover up using protective clothing, such as a long sleeve shirt and hat when in the sun. Use clothing with a tight weave to keep out as much sunlight as possible. Keep babies younger than 6 months old out of direct sunlight at all times. Hats with brims are important.
Remember, sand and pavement reflect UV rays even while under an umbrella. Snow is also a good reflector of UV rays. Reflective surfaces can reflect up to 85 percent of the damaging sun rays.
Also, take special care to purchase protective eye wear for you and your children. Purchase sunglasses with labels ensuring they provide UV protection.
Be sure to remember that many over-the-counter and prescription medications increase the skin's sensitivity to UV rays. As a result, persons with skin that tends not to burn easily can develop a severe sunburn in just minutes when taking certain medications.
Sunscreens protect the skin against sunburns and play an important role in blocking the penetration of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. However, no sunscreen blocks UV radiation 100 percent.
Terms used on sunscreen labels can be confusing. The protection provided by a sunscreen is indicated by the sun protection factor (SPF) listed on the product label. A product with an SPF higher than 15 is called a sunblock.
A sunscreen protects from sunburn and minimizes suntan by absorbing UV rays. Using sunscreens correctly is important in protecting the skin. Consider the following recommendations:
Choose a sunscreen for children and test it on your child's wrist before using. If your child develops skin or eye irritation, choose another brand. Apply the sunscreen very carefully around the eyes.
Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that filters out both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.
Apply sunscreens to all exposed areas of skin, including those easily overlooked areas, such as the rims of the ears, the lips, the back of the neck, and tops of the feet.
Use sunscreens for all children over 6 months of age, regardless of skin or complexion type, because all skin types need protection from UV rays. Even dark-skinned children can have painful sunburns.
Apply sunscreens 30 minutes before going out into the sun to give it time to work. Use it liberally and reapply it every two hours after being in the water or after exercising or sweating. Sunscreens are not just for the beach - use them when you are working in the yard or participating in sports.
Use a waterproof or water-resistant sunscreen.
Use of a sunscreen with SPF of 20 to 30 offers substantial protection from sunburn and prevents tanning. High SPF sunscreens protect from burning for longer periods of time than do sunscreens with lower a SPF. Talk with your older child or teenager about using sunscreen and why it's important. Set a good example for them by using sunscreen yourself.
Teach your teenager to avoid tanning beds and salons. Most tanning beds and salons use ultraviolet-A bulbs. Research has shown that UVA rays may contribute to premature aging of the skin and skin cancer.
© 2013 Main Line Health