I had lunch last week with a doctor who surprised me by volunteering that she is a cancer survivor. I’m grateful that she was willing to speak so candidly about the day that the dermatologist called to give her the news. She’s doing really well, by the way, but I was stopped in my tracks later that afternoon when this video clip came across my desk: Dear Sixteen Year Old Me. Watch…
Skin cancer. It always happens to someone else. That’s what tweens and teens tend to think (and if the truth be told, some of us parents labor under that false delusion that it won’t happen to us either!) Skin cancer is a terrible diagnosis, and sunscreen matters. I can’t say it in any simpler way. Preventing sunburn is well within our scope of influence as parents, and each of us should feel a real twinge of guilt when ANY child gets sunburn. Remember you can help someone else’s child reapply sunblock!
Having said that, I am always mindful of the way parents often respond to cautionary advice. “If a little is good, a lot is better.” When it comes to sunscreen, that advice may not be true. In fact, the FDA has finally come through with some evidence-based information to create a balanced approach to sunscreens. Research is beginning to help us, and we are learning that if number 15 is good, putting more chemical in the bottle does not make number 99 the best.
All of the research is not yet in, but we do know that some sunscreens are ‘safer’ choices than others. Common sense tells me that ‘everything in moderation’ is really good advice yet again and clearly applies here. As a doctor, I see sensitive skin reactions to a variety of sun screen products, usually ones with really high SPF numbers. I see more sunburn than I care to admit also. Sometimes the parent applied a sunscreen that was not water resistant, other times sunblock was not reapplied every hour or two.
Common sense needs to meet a child where he is. It tells me that avoiding outside time between 10am and 3pm, wearing in long sleeves and big hats is advice that’s hard to swallow for most kids. I wouldn’t want to play inside all day or only be allowed to go for a late day walk on the beach… in pants and long sleeves holding on to my hat. Common sense goes well with moderation. Both tell me that beach days starting outside at 8am and ending after sunset are too much. Both tell me that baby oil and iodine were not the smartest choices for “laying out” at age sixteen. Now I know.
With what I know, I’ve assembled a plan that works for my fair-haired family. We buy water-resistant sunscreen, at least number 15 but no more than 50, and we put it on before we head out to play in the sun…beach, pool, hiking, doesn’t matter. I own the big hat, but last week I noticed a baseball cap and sunglasses on my Passages Camp Counselor.
Living by example is probably one of the best pieces of advice I’d offer any parent. I’m beginning to teach my family and my “practice family” that tan skin is sun damaged skin. It’s time to acknowledge that tan bodies are not sporting a “healthy” glow.
Just like that story of the little boy, walking along the beach, tossing the starfish back into the ocean, I hope to make a difference in the incidence of skin cancer. I may not be able to save all the starfish along the beach just like the old man in the story points out to the little boy. But just as the boy knows, he and I can make a difference for this starfish…one bottle of sunscreen at a time. Thanks for reading.