When you were a kid, did you enjoy peeling a sunburn? Were you too cool for sunscreen? Did you visit tanning beds before Prom? Whatever your history with sun exposure, if you're a parent, you know the sunburn facts. You've got the SPF 50 in your pocket, and you're not afraid to use it.
That's a good thing. Sunburns early in life can lead to skin cancer, including dangerous melanoma.
“Unfortunately, sun exposure that we had as children puts us at the highest risk for melanoma as an adult,” says surgical oncologist Lynn Dengel, MD. She’s part of the melanoma treatment program at UVA Health.
Sunburn Facts: Doubling the Risk of Melanoma
You more than double your melanoma risk by having:
- 5 or more sunburns
- 1 blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence
These data points may inspire you to double down on your kid's sun protection. But what about you? How many sunburns did you have as a kid? Should you worry?
Why Worry About Melanoma?
Melanoma starts in the skin cells that make the pigment called melanin. Melanin's job is to protect our skin from the sun's ultraviolet rays.
Some types of melanoma can spread beyond the skin. We call this invasive melanoma. It’s on the rise in the U.S. About 98,000 Americans will be diagnosed with invasive melanoma this year.
We’ve come a long way in treating melanoma. Still, almost 8,000 people in the U.S. will die from melanoma in 2023, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Why Are Sunburns So Damaging?
We’ve heard of harmful radiation leaking from nuclear powerplant meltdowns. But the sun gives off radiation too. It’s an invisible form of energy called ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Tanning beds also emit UV radiation — in amounts 10 to 15 times higher than the sun at its peak intensity.
When we don’t protect our skin from UV radiation, it can damage the DNA in our skin cells. This can lead to genetic mutations. These can lead to skin cancer. UV rays can also damage the eyes, causing cataracts and eyelid cancer.
UV radiation is a proven human carcinogen. Like cigarettes, it’s a definite cause of cancer. And like cigarettes, it doesn’t immediately cause cancer. It takes years of exposure.
Another scary fact: More people develop skin cancer because of indoor tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking. (Virginia is among 20 states that ban indoor tanning for those under 18).
Parents: Have YOU Been Screened?
Get screened for skin cancer.
Easy Ways to Protect Your Kids from Skin Cancer
But here’s the good news. Sunburns are totally preventable.
Here’s a fun fact: Regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen reduces your risk of getting melanoma by 50%.
When Out Enjoying the Sun
- Lather on broad-spectrum sunscreen, even on cloudy days (UV radiation can penetrate clouds) Spray sunscreens make it easier to apply to wiggly kids.
- Don’t forget the lips. Use a lip balm with sunscreen.
- Wear sunglasses or hat.
- Don’t sit out in the sun all day.
“Sun protection is so important,” says Craig Slingluff, MD, a UVA Cancer Center doctor. He’s devoted his career to looking for better ways to fight melanoma and caring for people with melanoma. His patients include women in their 20s who tanned a lot.
He adds, “Doing the things you love to do in the sun is important. But making a special point to get sun just to have darker skin can lead to extra trouble.”