Sunburns in your youth can haunt your adult years


When you’re young, summer seems endless, problems are few, and the days are filled with fresh air and sunshine. Lots of sunshine. Wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves are for your grandparents and old folks who worry about things like skin cancer.

However, the sunburns of your youth can come back to haunt you later in life. In fact, if you’ve had more than 10 significant sunburns before age 18, your risk of skin cancer in adulthood is much greater. Damage occurs early, even if it doesn’t show up until later on.

There’s a YouTube video, “Dear 16-Year-Old Me,” that drives home that point in stunning detail. It features a series of interviews with adults who have had melanoma. It’s well done and sobering – a video parents should show to their teenagers.

However, protecting your skin from ultraviolet exposure should begin long before teenage years. My two preschool girls are already well-versed in the sunscreen ritual before going out to play. I tell parents that if they start protecting their kids from sun exposure when they’re young, they will get into the habit of wearing long sleeves, rash guards and sunscreen. It’s as important as seatbelts.

Rash guards, otherwise known as rash vests or simply “rashies”, are lightweight garments that protect shoulders and arms from exposure to sunlight.

According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, if your baby is younger than six months, you should use wide-brimmed hats, umbrellas, sunglasses and the type of sunscreen that blocks out the light. Sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are good choices.

If your child is six months or older, you can apply chemical-based sunscreens that are designed to absorb, rather than reflect, the UV rays that can harm your skin. But you should ask your doctor first.

Sunscreen must be reapplied every two hours – every 80 minutes if your child is in the water. Keep putting it on, or you’ll burn to a crisp.


Things to remember:

* You can get UV exposure even if you’re not in direct sunlight. Anybody who has spent time on the water or a ski slope knows that reflected sun can cause serious burns. Even surfaces that are not shiny will reflect a certain amount of sunlight.

* Higher altitudes bring greater exposure. Every 1,000-foot gain in altitude, your exposure increases 5 to 8 percent. Rapid City is about 3,200 feet. Lead is another 2,000 feet higher, so your UV exposure would be 10 to 16 percent greater in Lead. Keep this in mind as you manage the type of sunscreen and rate of reapplication.

* Dermatologists are not fans of tanning beds. Don’t do it, not even for prom.


Words by By Siri Knutsen-Larson, M.D.,  Regional Health Dermatologist