We all need some sun exposure; it's our primary source of vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones. But it doesn't take much time in the sun for most people to get the vitamin D they need, and unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can cause skin damage, eye damage, immune system suppression, and even cancer. Even people in their 20's develop skin cancer.
Most children rack up between 50 and 80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure before age 18, so it's important that parents teach their children how to enjoy fun in the sun safely. With the right precautions, you can greatly reduce your child's chance of developing skin cancer.
Facts About Sun Exposure
The sun radiates light to the earth, and part of that light consists of invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays. When these rays reach our skin, they cause tanning, burning, and other skin damage. There are three kinds of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. What's important is to protect your family from exposure to UVA and UVB, the rays that cause skin damage.
UV rays react with a chemical called melanin that's found in most people's skin. Melanin is your first defense against the sun. It absorbs dangerous UV rays before they do serious skin damage. Melanin is found in different concentrations and colors; the darker your skin color, the more melanin your skin has to protect itself. As the melanin increases in response to sun exposure, the skin tans. But even that "healthy" tan may be a sign of sun damage. The risk of damage increases with the amount and intensity of exposure. Those who are chronically exposed to the sun, such as farmers, boaters, and sunbathers, are at much greater risk.
A sunburn develops when the amount of UV exposure is greater than what can be protected against by the skin's melanin. The lighter your child's skin, the less melanin it has to absorb UV and protect itself. And all skin, no matter what color, responds to continued sun exposure by thickening and hardening, resulting in leathery skin and wrinkles later in life.
Unprotected sun exposure is even more dangerous for kids with moles on their skin (or whose parents have a tendency to develop moles), very fair skin and hair, or a family history of skin cancer, including melanoma. You should be especially diligent about sun protection if your child has one or more of these high-risk characteristics.
Not all sunlight is "equal" in UV concentration. The intensity of the sun's rays depends upon the time of year, as well as the altitude and latitude of your location.
UV rays are strongest during summer. Remember that the timing of this season varies by location; if you travel to a foreign country during its summer season, you'll need to pack the strongest sun protection you can find.
Extra protection is also required near the equator, where the sun is strongest, and at high altitudes, where the air and cloud cover are thinner, allowing more damaging UV rays to get through the atmosphere. Even during winter months, if your family goes skiing in the mountains, be sure to apply plenty of sunscreen; UV rays reflect off both snow and water, increasing the probability of sunburn.
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