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Practice Safe Sun

Posted - Jun. 11, 2004 at 12:20 p.m.



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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Betsy Currie's mother had skin cancer years ago. She's fine now, but that health scare shaped the way Currie, of St. Paul, views sun, sunburn and sun safety.

Now the mother of toddler twin girls, Currie has been vigilant about protecting them from the sun. When they were babies, Currie kept them covered up when they went outside. She tries to get them to wear hats and sunglasses. And every chance she gets, she slathers them with SPF 40 sunblock.

So far, so good.

"They have never gotten sunburned," she says.

But that's not the end of Currie's sun-protection strategy. Eventually, she may buy the girls, now 3, special clothing to block the sun.

Currie will have lots of choices. There's a slew of new sun-protection products aimed at children, including wetsuit-style swimsuits that promise to protect delicate skin, hats with flaps that cover the back of a child's neck and sunscreens that turn color in the sun. Experts say these products can be helpful, provided parents use them correctly and diligently. Parents say establishing a routine with their kids makes the process easier.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, on average, a child's exposure to the sun is three times that of an adult. The American Academy of Dermatology says 80 percent of lifetime sun exposure is estimated to occur before age 18.

The sun produces a spectrum of ultraviolet light - UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA rays are typically associated with tanning, while UVB rays are usually associated with the "burn index" and sunburn, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. UVC rays are less worrisome because the atmosphere absorbs them.

Hair and skin color appear to increase a person's risk of skin cancer only slightly, says Dr. Peter Lee, director of dermatologic surgery at the University of Minnesota. More troubling is family history of skin cancer; number of sunburns (more than two or three major sunburns); and number of moles (more than 50).

Damage can come from one "really intense, bad" sunburn or through cumulative exposure to UV rays, Lee says. That includes people who use tanning booths or people who spend a lot of time in the sun, like fishermen, farmers and snowbirds in Florida. Overexposure to sun can also damage skin cells by changing their DNA, Lee says.

There has been much debate over how much sun exposure is healthy, since it is a source of vitamin D. Lee says proper diet and vitamin D supplements should be adequate but predicts the debate will continue.

He recommends sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 15, though he prefers SPF 30. Using a sunblock with an even higher SPF is probably not worth it; rather, reapply it in proper amounts, every two hours. He also recommends sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which physically block UV rays. According to a 2001 study at the University of Texas, roughly three-fourths of people who used sunscreen got burned because they did not use it properly.

And don't let your guard down if you're sitting under a tree, canopy or umbrella. You will still be exposed to UV rays.

Applying sunscreen before going outside is a house rule at the St. Paul home of Rita Amendola. Her 5-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son may whine and squirm, but they know it's nonnegotiable.

"You don't go out without putting it on," Amendola says. "Period."

Sun-protective clothes are good tools, too. Typically, they're tightly woven and deliver an SPF of 50 or higher (compare that to an ordinary T-shirt of SPF 8). Specialty companies, like Coolibar and Sunwise Swimwear, carry the items, though some mainstream companies - like L.L. Bean - have started selling protective wear. Another alternative is RIT Sun Guard, a laundry additive.

Sunglasses are important, too, since there has been a 300 percent increase in cases of melanoma of the eye over the past five years, Lee says.

Kady Dadlez of St. Paul has the entire ensemble - special clothing, hats, sunglasses - for her 5-year-old triplets. The two girls and one boy are not wild about hats and only wear the sunglasses occasionally. But as they've gotten older, they tend to come in on their own when it gets too hot.

Typically that's between 11 a.m. and about 3 p.m.

This time of year, Ann Mathews-Lingen of St. Paul is outside with her two girls, 4 and 7, eight to 10 hours a day. They're usually out first thing in the morning. At midday, they take a break and go inside. If they do go out later, they wear plenty of sunscreen and stick to the shade of a tree.

"We follow the natural rhythms of the day," Mathews-Lingen says. "We follow a pattern."

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RESOURCES

American Academy of Dermatology: www.aad.org

American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org

Coolibar: www.coolibar.com

Sunwise Swimwear: www.sunwiseswimwear.com

RIT Guard: www.ritdye.com/sun-guard

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(c) 2004, Saint Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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