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The ABCs of SPFs : Experts Put New Emphasis on Sun Protection for the Child Who Is Fair of Face


The days when barefoot boys and girls with cheeks of tan spent their summers in the sunshine may quickly be coming to an end. Dermatologists and pediatricians now suggest that protecting children from the sun's harmful rays may be a matter of life and death.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation in New York City, one out of every 100 children will, as an adult, develop skin cancer directly related to childhood sun exposure. A single severe sunburn in one's first 10 to 20 years can double the risk of malignant melanoma, the most deadly and aggressive form of skin cancer (25,800 Americans will be afflicted with this cancer in 1987, and it is expected to kill 5,800 of them). In addition, experts now say that children--especially those with fair skin--are not only more vulnerable than adults to intense exposure, but also that they spend three times as many hours in the sun as the average grown-up.

In response, the makers of sun-protection preparations are targeting a new, very young customer. The products have names like Baby Faces and Tender Places and Water Babies and smell more like baby lotion than coconut oil. And their SPF (sun protection factor) designations are among the highest on the market.

Although they offer the same protection as many products for adults, these new formulas are hypo-allergenic and are designed to be painless (the high concentration of sunscreen in products with SPFs above 15 sometimes stings skin, says Jack Surrette, director of marketing for Hawaiian Tropic's Baby Faces and Tender Places). He adds that Baby Faces, which was introduced last summer, was the first sunscreen aimed at children and that it sold 750,000 bottles by the end of 1986. He projects that sales will top 1 million this year. "Mothers are listening to what the doctors are saying," he says.

What many are saying is that children from 6 months to 18 years should routinely use sunscreens with SPF 15 or higher. Some take an even stricter approach, recommending that children stay out of the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when rays are most intense.

"Skin cancer is becoming an epidemic," says Dr. Sidney Hurwitz, a clinical professor of pediatrics and dermatology at Yale University School of Medicine. "Parents should begin sun protection from Day 1 in a child's life. Kids should reach for the sunscreen every morning, just like brushing their teeth."

Dr. Robert S. Stern, a dermatology professor at Harvard University Medical School, says children who regularly use an SPF-15 product during their first 18 years reduce their chances of developing skin cancer by 78%. He adds that parents also reduce their children's risk of sunburn as well as retard skin aging when they use these sunscreens on their children.

The FDA has yet to determine the safety of sunscreen products for children under 6 months, so Hurwitz urges parents to dress infants in protective clothing: hats, long sleeves and pants. And after 6 months, children should wear protective clothing and sunscreen " whenever the sun is out," he says. "In sunny climates like Southern California, that means almost every day."

Joyce Ayoub, public information officer of the Skin Cancer Foundation, says some parents fail to protect their kids from the sun because they themselves don't understand the dangers involved. In fact, she says, many are convinced that sun exposure is good for children. According to the organization's pamphlet, "For Every Child Under the Sun: A Guide to Sensible Sun Protection," the majority still believe some dangerous myths:

That children need strong doses of sunlight.

Fact: Sunlight helps make Vitamin D in the skin. However, most scientists agree that alternate sources of Vitamin D in fortified foods, such as dairy products, are just as effective as the sun.

That sun damage is only temporary.

Fact: The body can repair some of the superficial damage to skin; that's why a sunburn lasts only a few days. But over the years, with each successive exposure, the damage accumulates. The results may not be apparent for 20 years.

That a tan child is a healthy child.

Fact: A tan is really a sign of injury. By the time a tan develops, permanent damage--which may eventually appear as wrinkles, blotches, sagging tissue and skin cancer--has already been done. So the term healthy tan is a contradiction.

(For a free copy of the pamphlet, "For Every Child Under the Sun," write to the Skin Cancer Foundation, P.O. Box 561, Dept. LA, New York, N.Y. 10156.)

"It's tragic that mothers put a sunscreen on their children while they are in the pool, but not when they play in the backyard," says JoAnne Brown, director of public relations for Coppertone, maker of Water Babies.

Parents who protect their own skin set a good example. Brown says she and her 3-year-old daughter apply their sunscreens together, "every morning in front of the mirror. She feels very grown up about it."

Dr. David Whiting, clinical associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, acknowledges that "kids will be kids. We can't lock them in the house." But with appropriate protection, children won't have to miss out on their days in the sun.

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