Only 25% kids getting adequate sun protection: Study

The slogan meant to increase sun protection use – “Slip! Slop! Slap! and Wrap” may be losing its touch – especially in kids. Despite numerous efforts to encourage people to wear sunscreen, a new study shows only 1 in 4 children regularly use sunscreen. Researchers say more than half of the children in the study also reported having a sunburn in the previous summer.

“The problem is if you sunburn in childhood, you raise your risk of developing skin cancer later on,” says Sophie J. Balk, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. Additionally a recent study showed that children who have a sunburn at an early age are nearly twice as likely to develop melanoma in adulthood. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and is responsible for nearly 9,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Exposure to ultraviolet light radiation from the sun or tanning beds is the biggest modifiable risk factor for melanoma.

For this new study the researchers surveyed 360 fifth graders about their sunscreen use and sun exposure habits in 2004 at about age 11 and again three years later in 2007. The results showed that half of the children reported routinely wearing sunscreen in 2004, but only 25% did so in 2007. In addition, more than half of the children said they had sunburns in both the summer of 2004 and 2007.

Researchers say the results show that the time between ages 11 and 14 is a critical time in developing attitudes about tanning and wearing sunscreen, especially among girls. The add that girls were more than twice as likely to report liking a tan at age 14 than at age 11. They were also much more likely to say they spent time out in the sun in the previous summer. By the time boys and girls in the study were 14, they were 60%-70% less likely to say they “often or always” wore sunscreen when at the beach or pool last 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,” researcher Stephen Dusza, of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and colleagues write in Pediatrics. “The next step is to learn how to best promote sun protection in pediatric offices and community settings such as beaches, after-school sites, and sporting events,” Dusza says in a news release. “This is especially true for adolescents who are developing tan-promoting behaviors.” “”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,” said Dr. Jonette Keri, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine. “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,” said Dr. Michel McDonald, director of cosmetic dermatology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville. “We need to get them to start early, and if they do that, it will become one of their habits,” she added.

Speaking on Melanoma Keri said, “This is a very bad disease, so we need to identify what these kids think and once we know, we can target their thinking and try to change their habits…The problem is the idea of a tan being beautiful is perpetuated on television and in the media, and it's very hard to break that…Maybe we can get them thinking about their skin, and get them to examine it carefully and know what changes to look for, so if they do go tanning or are out in the sun, they can at least be aware of the signs of skin cancer so they can get treated early.”

Balk says wearing sunscreen should be just one part of a total skin cancer prevention program for teens. Other ways to protect skin from the damaging effects of the sun include wearing sun-protective clothing, wide-brimmed hat to protect the face and neck from the sun and sunglasses to protect the eyes and limiting outdoor activities between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. “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 tells WebMD.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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