Sunscreen and kids

I have a 13 month old. We all have red hair and fair complexions. Skin cancer runs in the family. I use sunscreen on my daughter or keep her out of the sun during peak hours, but my family keeps telling me that in order for her to avoid burning, she needs to "get used to the sun." I think they're uninformed, but maybe I'm wrong. Should I let my daughter stay out in the sun?


Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

There are many things that researchers are looking into when it comes to risk factors for skin cancer. And while the jury is still out concerning a number of these possible hazards, there are three that seem to be clear-cut risk factors, skin type, family history, and serious sun overexposure as a child.

Skin Type

The pigment in our skin is due to the relative amounts of melanin. Those with large amounts of melanin are darker skinned while those with less of it are more fair complected. Melanin is an interesting chemical because it helps protect the skin cells from the radiation of the sun. Ultraviolet rays from the sun can cause DNA damage, and if damaged in certain ways, the DNA can cause the cells to become cancerous. Tanning causes the skin to produce more melanin but not before the skin cells (and thus their DNA) have been damaged. Some argue that tanning is the natural way to allow the body to produce this cancer protecting melanin. This is obviously a poor argument because to get the protection you first have to damage the skin cells putting them at risk for developing skin cancer.

Family History

As with most diseases, a positive family history puts you at higher risk for developing skin cancer. While some of the reasons for this are known, many are not. We know there are certain diseases which run in families which cause the body to have an impairment to repair damaged DNA. Therefore, these people get exposed to the sun, have the DNA in their skin altered which eventually causes skin cancer. Other families have DNA that is already prone to getting skin cancer but needs a little kick-start to actually cause it. That kick-start can be in the form of exposure to the sun. But regardless of the cause, a family history of skin cancer should put those family members on alert and have their skin checked yearly by a doctor to examine suspicious moles.

Over-Exposure to the Sun as a Child

Research has shown that skin cancer is not something that pops up overnight. In fact, there is pretty good evidence that the sequence of events takes years if not decades to complete. You see, our body has a pretty good system in place to correct DNA that gets altered for one reason or another. But this system is far from perfect. So, while our bodies can take care of many attacks on the DNA from the sun, it will eventually miss one. The accumulation of these misses ultimately can lead to skin cancer. Obviously, the more chances you give your body to miss one, the more chance it will miss one. And each time your skin gets over-exposed to the sun, that's thousands of chances you give your body to miss one.

You are telling me is that your daughter already has two strikes against her when it comes to skin cancer, a positive family history and fair skin type. These are things she can do nothing about. However, the third thing, namely exposure to the sun, is something you can modify. So, at the risk of raising the ire of your family members, I highly suggest you put a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater on your daughter each time she plays in the sun. This will greatly reduce her chances of skin cancer. In addition, she may thank you when she's much older because of how much younger her skin will look.

I hope this helps.

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