Be a sun-sensible parent

Carefree sunny days should be an integral part of a South African childhood, but with ultraviolet solar radiation and skin cancer rates higher than ever, it may seem as if the simple pleasures of summer are a thing of the past.

It's true that a laissez-faire attitude to the harmful effects of the sun is no longer appropriate, but by taking a few practical sun-sensible measures, you and your children can still enjoy a great summer.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer among whites in South Africa, although no skin type is immune. Sun exposure is responsible for the majority of skin cancers, especially malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form.

Children are particularly vulnerable to the sun's harmful effects, and there is strong evidence to suggest that prevention during childhood may significantly decrease lifetime risk of developing melanoma. As much as 80% of a person's lifetime sun damage occurs before age 18. Just three bouts of severe sunburn (a "blistering burn") during childhood significantly increases risk for skin cancer in adulthood.

We need to disenchant ourselves of the idea of a "healthy tan". No matter how gradually acquired, tanning is a sign of sun damage. All children in a sunny climate such as South Africa's need sun protection, but it is particularly important for those who have naturally pale skin that burns easily, such as red-heads and blondes.

Recent evidence suggests that children with freckles or moles have a higher risk for skin cancer later in life, and should therefore be especially careful about sun exposure.

General guidelines:

  • If your child is going to spend more than even 20 minutes outside, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen lotion with a high sun protection factor (SPF).
  • For babies and toddlers, who have very sensitive skin, preferably choose a sunscreen that is specially formulated for children.
  • Apply the sunscreen to dry skin 15 to 30 minutes before your child goes outdoors.
  • Pay particular attention to areas not covered by clothing, such as the face, ears, neck and hands.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after swimming or energetic activities that cause sweating.
  • Wet skin is more susceptible to sun damage than dry skin.
  • Cover up as much as possible with cool cotton clothing, and make a wide-brimmed hat an indispensable part of summer wear. Remember that it's still possible to get burnt through thin clothes - densely woven fabric offers the best protection.
  • Consider buying your child a pair of sunglasses: many ranges include models for children. Good-quality glasses with protective UV lenses can reduce the risk of cataract formation and retinal degeneration later in life.
  • Children of school-going age should wear hats and sunscreen to school, and be taught sun sense, especially if they engage in a lot of outdoor school sports or other activities.
  • Instilling good sun habits at an early age encourages children to continue such behaviour throughout their lives.
  • As a general rule this summer, try to keep your child out of the sun when it is at its peak between 10am and 3pm.
  • Remember that shade offered by trees and umbrellas is not sufficient protection, and that sunlight reflects off surfaces such as beach sand and water, and penetrates cloud cover. (Clouds usually block only about 20% of the sun's rays.)
  • Sun protection measures should be used in combination: wear a hat and avoid being outdoors at midday.

Sunscreens and UV

  • Sunscreen creams or lotions are labelled with a sun protection factor (SPF): the higher the number, the greater the protection. For children, use sunscreens with high protection factors (15 and above), and preferably bearing the CANSA (Cancer Association of South Africa) seal. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, i.e. one that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA and UVB are the two kinds of UV rays that damage our skins. UVB rays can cause sunburn, tanning and certain skin cancers. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and can damage the cell structure, increasing the risk of cancer.
  • Waterproof sunscreen offers protection for at least 80 minutes of water activity; water-resistant sunscreen protects for at least 40 minutes. "Sweat-proof" sunscreen offers waterproof protection, and is resistant to removal through sweating. Even these sunscreens should be reapplied every few hours to be most effective, however. "All-day" protection offers waterproof protection for up to about eight hours, but you should reapply it after swimming or energetic activity that results in sweating.
  • Sunscreen lotions, used correctly, offer useful protection, but there's no such thing as a "total" or "100%" sun protection product, and the sense of safety they provide may lead people to spend too much time in the sun.

How to Treat Sunburn

If, despite your best efforts, your child does get sunburned this summer, try the following home treatment tips:

  • Keep your child's skin cool. Gently sponge or pat the sunburned area with cool water or aftersun cream to soothe and moisturise the skin.
  • Watch out for signs of fever. It is a good idea for a badly sunburned child to rest quietly.
  • Keep your child out of direct sunlight for at least a week.

(Liesel Powell, Health24)

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