March 1, 2011 -- Not enough is being done to reduce sun exposure and the risk of skin cancer among children, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Lifelong sun protection is needed from an early age, and the group is calling for the U.S. government to ban the use of tanning salons among minors as well as urging doctors and parents to do more to protect children from the dangers of ultraviolet radiation (UVR).
"The risk of skin cancer increases when people overexpose themselves to sun and intentionally expose themselves to artificial sources of UVR. Yet people continue to sunburn, and teenagers and adults alike remain frequent visitors to tanning parlors," write researcher Sophie J. Balk, MD, former chair of the AAP Committee on Environmental Health, and colleagues in Pediatrics. Balk is a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore.
"Public awareness of the risk is not optimal, overall compliance with sun protection is inconsistent, and melanoma rates continue to rise," they write.
Melanoma is a serious and potentially deadly form of skin cancer.
“Many parents may not be aware that melanoma is the most common skin cancer in children, followed by basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas," says Thomas Rohrer, MD, secretary of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, in an email statement. "In addition, only six severe sunburns in a lifetime increase risk of melanoma by 50 percent."
Teens and Tanning Salons
Researchers say the use of tanning salons is common among teenagers, especially teenage girls. One survey showed nearly a quarter of non-Hispanic teenagers had used a tanning salon at least once.
They say the intensity of ultraviolet radiation produced by some tanning units can be up to 10-15 times higher than the midday sun.
"One commonly held misconception is that a 'pre-vacation tan' -- obtained when people visit tanning salons to prepare the skin for a sunny vacation -- protects against subsequent skin damage," write the researchers. "This practice actually leads to extra radiation exposure not only before the vacation but afterward because people use fewer sun protection precautions during the vacation."
Therefore, the AAP says it's joining several other medical organizations in supporting legislation prohibiting the use of tanning salons by children under the age of 18.
Tips to Reduce Sun Exposure
Aside from avoiding tanning salons and artificial sources of ultraviolet radiation, the report offers the following advice for limiting sun exposure and reducing the risk of skin cancer among children:
- Avoid getting sunburns.
- Wear protective clothing and hats while outside.
- Time outdoor activities, when possible, outside the peak sun exposure hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- Apply a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 every two hours and after swimming, sweating, or drying off with a towel.
- Infants under 6 months of age should be kept out of direct sunlight and protected with clothing and hats.
Researchers say following this sun exposure advice is especially important for children at high risk of developing skin cancer, including those with light skin, freckles, or a family history of melanoma.
Vitamin D in Diet and Supplements
The report calls for doctors and parents to be vigilant about protecting children from ultraviolet radiation while encouraging some outside activity for optimal health and vitamin D production.
Vitamin D is necessary for normal growth and bone development. Sources of vitamin D include exposure to the sun, dietary sources, and supplements. Vitamin D deficiency is a growing health concern among both children and adults. But researchers say deliberate sun and ultraviolet radiation exposure with the goal of increasing vitamin D production should be avoided. Instead, healthy vitamin D levels should be achieved through dietary sources and supplementation, if necessary.