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Kids, Sun and Safety : Children are more susceptible than adults to harm from rays. Everyday skin care is recommended.

July 02, 1993|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to Valley Life

Most parents have heard warnings about the sun's harmful effects on children's skin. But how many make sun screening as much a part of the daily routine as brushing teeth?

Dr. Jeffrey Klein, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Woodland Hills, says he constantly hears excuses. People still think that children look healthier with a good tan, and they find it hard to believe that a little dose of daily sun could possibly increase their kids' chances of getting skin cancer or cause premature aging, he says. "We live in a short-sighted culture; sun exposure is perceived as a small and distant risk."

But it is not. Half a million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed every year. By the year 2000, experts predict that one person in 90 will be diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a life-threatening form of skin cancer. "We are talking truly epidemic proportions," Klein says.

And children are even more at risk than adults. Kids get three times as much sun exposure on a daily basis, Klein says, and 80% of a person's lifetime sun exposure occurs before age 21. Children may also be inherently more at risk of sun damage due to the immature development of their immune systems, he adds.

Teen-agers, too, are prone to sun damage. A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics showed that, despite the fact that 35% of teen-agers reported that they spent most summer weekdays and weekends in the sun, 33% said they never used sunscreen, and 31% said they only used sunscreen 25% of the time.

The risk of damage includes more than just skin: The sun's UVA rays can also cause cataract formation and retinal damage. So comprehensive sun protection must also include effective sunglasses and hats, says Todd Turriff, spokesman for the National Society to Prevent Blindness.

Turriff suggests that parents give their children shades that screen the majority of ultraviolet rays, labeled 400 nanometer rays (400 nm), on glasses with that level of protection. Just buying an expensive pair of sunglasses does not guarantee protection.

Even the cheapest glasses--some cost as little as $5 to $10--can be a good bet if they are labeled with a 400 nm protection level, meet minimum safety standards and are well enough made that they are not blurry or distort light. More and more sunglasses for children not only meet all the requirements, but are comfortable and stylish enough that children might not mind wearing them.

Ineffective sunglasses actually can cause more harm than no glasses, Turriff says. Any shades--whether they screen out ultraviolet rays or not--allow the eyes to dilate. If the UV is not screened well, the dilated eyes actually get more harmful sun exposure than if they were unshaded and the pupils constricted.

When it comes to sunscreen protection, Klein advises children and parents to use a lotion with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15. The lotion should be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow it to sink in and dry. He urges parents to use enough lotion to cover the skin areas well.

Higher SPF sunscreens--like SPF 30--should be used for extended sun exposure, like a day out on a boat or at the beach. The higher SPFs should not be used on a daily basis, Klein says, because they can cause greater skin sensitivity and irritation.

Like children, parents should also use sunscreen daily, Klein says.

If, despite best efforts, a sunburn does strike, Klein recommends cool compresses, oatmeal or witch hazel baths, or even a cup of vinegar or baking soda in a tub of cool water.

Klein urges parents and children to use sunscreen routinely.

"Just put sun screen on right after you brush your teeth--every day," he says.

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