How to prevent skin cancer among kids
Spring and summertime for many of us is all about being outside and enjoying the glorious weather minus a monkey cap or a shovel and gloves in hand. For children, no longer armed with a handy excuse to cozy up in front of the TV, it means shedding the layers, and to instead, get plenty of play under the sun. But time spent outside also means exposure to the sun’s harmful rays - a known cause of skin cancer.
In the United States, many of the more than two million skin cancers diagnosed annually are preventable if the skin is protected from excessive sun exposure and by avoiding indoor tanning, according to the American Cancer Society.
“This applies to children as much as adults,” says Dr. Olukemi Akinrinola, a pediatrician at the Banner Health Clinic in Greeley, Colo. “It’s often easy to forget to protect the little ones in the house, especially when it comes to applying sunscreen.”
Increased sun exposure at an early age and an increased incidence of sunburns could mean a higher chance of developing skin cancer as an adult, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Limiting exposure to sunlight in children and teens may pay large dividends in preventing skin cancers later in life.
“That doesn’t mean staying cooped indoors all day either,” says Dr. Akinrinola. “Being smart by being ahead of the curve when it comes to sun exposure can make a difference.”
Children six months and older should use sunscreen with at least Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30, reminds Dr. Kirsten Flynn, a dermatologist at the Banner Health Center in Sun City West. Look for “broad spectrum” formulas that defend against both UVA and UVB rays, Dr. Flynn adds.
Parents of newborns should make sure to avoid direct sunlight for their little ones until they’re six months old. Babies should always wear protective clothing and be shaded by a canopy or umbrella.
Use sunscreen on an infant only if no other protection is available, says Dr. Flynn.
Handy Tips from Dr. Flynn:
- Use at least one ounce of sunscreen (enough to fill a shot glass) and apply it to all areas of the body that are exposed to the sun. Re-apply every two hours or after any water play or exercise.
- Select swimwear that includes UV protection and encourage your children to wear hats and clothing that protect their skin.
- For areas that receive a lot of sun exposure, such as noses, cheeks, ears and shoulders, choose sun protection with zinc oxide or titanium oxide as the first ingredient.
- Avoid the outdoors between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is most powerful.
- Use sunscreen daily, even when skies are overcast and temperatures are chilly. The sun is always present and UVA and UVB rays can pass through clouds.
- We apply plenty of sunscreen routinely on the face, but one area that often gets overlooked is the lips. Apply a lip balm with an SPF of at least 30 to protect your lips.
- It’s highly recommended for a pediatrician to do a skin check on your child at his or her annual well visit. If you see a questionable spot or mole on your child’s skin, report it to your doctor immediately.
Risk factors for skin cancer
Skin cancer is more common in fair-skinned people, especially those with blond or red hair and those with light-colored eyes. Skin cancer is rare in children. However, no one is safe from skin cancer. Other risk factors include:
- Family history of melanoma
- Prior personal history of skin cancer
- Sun exposure. The amount of time spent unprotected in the sun directly affects your child's risk of skin cancer.
- Early childhood sunburns. Research has shown that sunburns early in life increase a child's risk for skin cancer later in life. Sun exposure early in life is a major contributing factor to developing skin cancer.
- Many freckles
- Many ordinary moles (more than 50)
- Dysplastic moles (Usually large, with an abnormal shape or color. They can increase a person’s lifetime risk for melanoma to 50 percent or greater).
- Prior radiation therapy
- Immune suppression – Individuals who are or have been on medications that suppress the immune system.
- Certain rare, inherited conditions such as basal cell nevus syndrome (Gorlin syndrome) or xeroderma pigmentosum (XP)
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How to perform a skin exam
Keeping an early and alert eye on moles, especially those that change in shape or size over time, is the key to treating skin cancer successfully. Examining your children (and yourself) is usually the first step in detecting skin cancer. Consult your child’s doctor immediately if you notice anything suspicious. It’s better to have a mole checked out early, just in case.
The following suggested method of examination comes from the American Academy of Dermatology:
- Examine your child's body front and back, then the right and left sides, with arms raised.
- Look carefully at your child's forearms, the back of his or her upper arms, and the palms of the hands. Check between the fingers and look at the nail beds.
- Look at the backs of his or her legs and feet, spaces between the toes, the toenail beds and the soles of the feet.
- Examine the back of his or her neck and scalp.
- Check his or her back, buttocks and genital area.
- Become familiar with your child's skin and the pattern of moles, freckles and other marks.
- Be alert to changes in the number, size, shape, and color of pigmented areas.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Olukemi Akinrinola at the Banner Health Clinic in Greeley, Colo, please call (970) 810-5828. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Kirsten Flynn at the Banner Health Center in Sun City West, please call (623) 583-5180 or find a Banner physician near you.