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Summer Health Hazards, Part 2 - Sunburns

June 05, 2017

It’s one of “Summer’s Health Hazards” – sunburns.

While there are health benefits to sunlight from boosting the body’s vitamin D supply to fending off depression during long dark winters, the sun’s rays can be equally damaging from too much exposure resulting in wrinkles and even worse, skin cancer.

“Many skin cancers can be prevented by simply staying away from tanning beds and refraining from being a sun worshipper,” said Dr. Richard Arenas, chief of Surgical Oncology for the Baystate Regional Cancer Program.

While equally important for both adults and children, a baby’s skin is more delicate and thinner than an adult’s, resulting in a greater risk for sunburn. And, all it takes is just a few blistering sunburns as a child to more than double the chances of developing a potentially-deadly melanoma later in life.

Sunscreen for babies

 Babies are never too young to protect them from the damaging effects of the sun, notes Dr. John O’Reilly of Baystate General Pediatrics.

“Protective clothing and keeping your baby in the shade are good first steps in protecting your young infant, but sunblock is needed for those areas of the baby’s body that remain exposed to the sun. Hypoallergenic sunblock that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sit on top of the skin and may be the best choice for babies under 6 months. Over 6 months any sunblock can be used,” he said.

The Baystate Children’s Hospital pediatrician often recommends to parents that they test out any sunblock on their child’s skin to be sure that he or she is not sensitive to the ingredients before putting the sunblock on large areas of the body.

Dr. O’Reilly and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer the following prevention tips for keeping baby safe from the sun:

  • Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct and indirect sunlight because of the risk of heat stroke. Particularly, avoid having a baby out between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Keep babies in the shade as much as possible. For example, they should be moved under a tree, beach umbrella, or stroller canopy. However, it is important to note that although on reflective surfaces, an umbrella or canopy may reduce UVR exposure by only 50%.
  • Dress babies in lightweight cotton clothing with long sleeves and long pants and a sun hat with a wide brim.
  • Sunscreen may be applied to babies younger than 6 months on small areas of the body, such as the face, if protective clothing and shade are not available. For those older than six months, apply to all areas of the body, but be careful around the eyes. If your baby rubs sunscreen into his or her eyes, wipe the eyes and hands clean with a damp cloth. If the sunscreen irritates the skin, try a different brand or sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. If a rash develops, talk with your child's doctor.
  • Apply the protection 15 to 30 minutes before going out. Keep in mind that no sunscreens are truly waterproof, and thus they need to be reapplied every one and a half to two hours, particularly if a baby goes into the water. Consult the instructions on the bottle.

Not just at the beach

Dr. O'Reilly noted that sun safety isn't something only for a day out at the beach.

"It is just as important to put on sunscreen whenever your child is heading outside. The sun is just as damaging in the park or in your own backyard, so always have your child head out with a hat, appropriate clothing, and sunblock on any exposed areas of the body. Getting a sunburn will make your child miserable now, and increase their risk of skin cancer later. Prevention is the key to happy and healthy outdoor adventures," he said.

Adults also need to follow many of the same recommendations for children, noted Dr. Arenas. The Baystate surgical oncologist and the American Cancer Society also want adults to avoid being outdoors in the sunlight for too long, especially in the middle of the day when UV light is most intense. In addition to seeking the shade, they recommend the following tips to stay sun-safe:

  • Keep your shirt on.
  • Put on the sunscreen.
  • Grab a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head.
  • Wear sunglasses that block at least 99% of UV light in order to protect your eyes.

Make the right choice

When selecting a sunscreen – which can not only help to prevent sunburn, but also help reduce your risk of getting skin cancer and prevent early signs of skin aging – the American Academy of Dermatology suggests making sure the label says:

Broad spectrum – The words “broad spectrum” mean that the sunscreen can protect your skin from both types of harmful UV rays – the UVA rays and UVB rays.

SPF 30 or higher – Make sure you select a product whose label claims an SPF rating of 30 or higher.

Water resistant – Look for the words “water resistant.” This tells you that the sunscreen will stay on wet or sweaty skin for a while before you need to reapply. Water resistance lasts either 40 or 80 minutes. Not all sunscreens offer water resistance.

Three types of skin cancer

There are three types of major skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and the deadliest form – melanoma. Surgery is the main treatment for most cases of melanoma, and it can often cure early-stage cancers.

In addition to sunburns, other Summer Health Hazards include protecting yourself from the ill effects of the heat, food-borne illnesses, water-borne illnesses, exercising in the summer, and ticks.

For more information on the Baystate Regional Cancer Program, visit baystatehealth.org/brcp or to request an appointment or ask a question, call (413) 794-9338.

For more information on Baystate Children's Hospital, visit baystatehealth.org/bch or to request an appointment or ask a question, call (413)794-KIDS.