But, it’s just a sunburn, right? Most parents recognize the necessity of putting sunscreen on their kids. They know – likely from personal experience – that sunburns can be incredibly painful. Their pediatricians likely remind them about sunscreen at every checkup. The trouble is, though we all seek to shield our children from the pain of sunburns, we need to start talking about the dangers of sunburns: it’s time to get real.

What happens when your skin burns?

As our skin absorbs sunlight, cell damaging UVA and UVB rays sink into the skin’s outer layers. We start generating more melanin, a pigment-darkening molecule that helps protect us from burning. Unfortunately, it can take up to three days for these new molecules to develop and reach the skin’s outer-most layer. More blood flows to the affected areas in an attempt to promote healing – it’s this blood collecting below the skin’s surface that makes sunburns look red and feel warm. Sometimes the damaged skin cells peel off. But the damage done to the DNA of cells deeper in our skin layers isn’t reversible. These cells can mutate and eventually turn into skin cancer.

A recent study published in Cancer, Epidemiology, Biomarkers, & Prevention, the journal of the American Association for Caner Research, found that cumulative sun exposure over a young woman’s life significantly increased her chances of developing skin cancer. Specifically, the new research suggests that having just five blistering sunburns before the age of 20 may increase one’s risk of developing melanoma (the most deadly form or skin cancer) by 80 percent.

The Dangers of Sunburns: It’s Time to Get Real

Sun exposure – especially during the summer months – is unavoidable for most children. We lather them up with sunscreen before they leave the house to play with friends or go to day camp, but we can’t chase them all day with the sunscreen spray. Perhaps this is why the American Academy of Dermatology released a position statement last week urging certain states to change their laws to allow children to bring sunscreen with them to school or camp.

I’ve always sent sunscreen to camp and school. My experience is that a good camp will ask kids to reapply sunscreen after lunch, but most assume you send your child in sunscreen. Most schools, however, don’t think about sunscreen at all. Imagine how long it would take to lather up an entire kindergarten class. While there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to this problem, it’s certainly one that deserves conversation in families, school districts, pediatric practices, and public health departments nationwide.

Sunburnt school girlThis is a picture of my daughter after her school’s end-of-year field day. I slicked her with SPF 50 before she went to school and slipped the bottle in her backpack, with instructions for her to apply after lunch. She forgot. She’s not even ten yet – is it really her place to remember?

While skin cancer rates in other countries are dropping, they continue to rise in the United States. It’s time to get real about the dangers of sunburns; it’s time to talk about damaged DNA, skin cancer rates, and the UV index. According to one study, sunscreen alone isn’t enough to protect us from melanoma (especially when so few of us use it properly!). We absolutely must teach our children to wear sunscreen, cover-ups, and hats. But children can’t necessarily be responsible for something as important as sunscreen. We need to work together to increase access to sunscreen throughout the day, to ensure that children apply it correctly if an adult can’t apply it for them, and to encourage schools and camps to move outdoor activities away from mid-day when the sun is strongest.

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