Tannable Twos

If you’ve ever spent a summer day at the beach or poolside, you’ve undoubtedly seen an adorable infant decked out in sun-protective attire, including a jumper, colossal sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.

Unfortunately, such enlightened caregiving apparently has a statute of limitations. Researchers at Boston University, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Falmouth Hospital in Falmouth, MA, recently found that after awhile, parents grow far less attentive to their children’s sun safety. Their survey of 108 mothers showed that protective methods such as dressing children in hats, shirts and sunglasses and keeping them in the shade were used significantly less often during the children’s second summer than during their first, even when the parents had been trained by experts in sun safety.

Although sunscreen use rose significantly in the second year, 54 percent of children became sunburned or tanned in the second summer, versus 22 percent in the first. The researchers concluded that effective sun protection declines, and skin damage starts, much earlier than they had expected. Why this disturbing trend?

First, control becomes an issue: In their second year, kids run around more, have play dates away from their parents, and are generally a less captive audience for sun safety training. “Keeping babies out of the sun is often manageable, but consistent, effective sun protection of toddlers requires more effort and is more challenging,” noted study leader Lori Steinberg Benjes, MD, now in private practice in Wellesley, MA.

Finally, the fact that the children had more sunburns despite greater use of sunscreen indicates that many parents don’t fully grasp what is required for proper sun protection. “Parents need to understand that sunscreen is only one vital line of defense in sun protection,” said NYU dermatologist Perry Robins, MD, President of The Skin Cancer Foundation. “Strategies such as seeking shade and dressing children in sun-protective clothing are just as important and can’t be abandoned in the second year, since sunscreen cannot keep all of the sun’s rays away from the skin. Teaching these techniques early to children can leave them with sun safety habits that will help prevent skin cancer later in life.”