Studies show that if you let your children spend even a short amount of time outside without protection from the sun, you're increasing their risks of this disease by a generous proportion.
"Anytime you get a sunburn, at any age, your risk of skin cancer goes up. But get that burn before the age of 18, and your risks go up dramatically -- and the more times a child experiences sunburn or even sun damage caused by a tan, the greater their future risk of skin cancer," says Dr. Darrell Rigel, a dermatologist from New York University Medical Center.
One reason, Rigel says, is the cancer-causing effects of the sun are cumulative. Simply put, the earlier that sun damage to the skin starts -- which can happen with a tan as well as a burn -- the more likely your child is to reach the level of cellular damage that translates into skin cancer.
But that's not the only reason children need to be protected from the sun. Because a child's immune system is not fully developed, Rigel says, they don't have the kind of biochemical defense mechanism that normally helps an adult's body catch at least some of the cells damaged by the sun and repair them before cancer has a chance to develop.
"As a result, over time those cells damaged in childhood become an adult skin cancer," Rigel says.
Earlier this year, research conducted at Harvard's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston was even more specific in pinpointing the dangers to children. According to Dr. Lynda Chin, it may all come down to the recently discovered Rb pathway -- a series of biochemical signals that can sense when damage occurs in a skin cell and immediately shut down its ability to duplicate itself.
Indeed, the American Academy of Dermatology confirms that nearly two-thirds of all melanoma skin cancers are related to sun exposure, and up to 80 percent of that exposure usually occurs during childhood. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 54,000 new cases of melanoma skin cancer will be diagnosed in 2003, and some 7,600 new deaths will occur from this disease this year.
One way to protect your children is to make certain they wear a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, and to make sure they use the product correctly.
Although sunscreen can go a long way in protecting your child, experts from the American Academy of Dermatology say it won't do the whole job. They urge parents to enlist at least one other form of protection for their children, including hats, sunglasses and T-shirts, particularly at the beach.