Sun protection in childhood prevents skin cancer in adults

We all know by now that it’s important to protect our skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays — but it’s really important that that protection starts young.

Because the skin cells of babies and children divide much more rapidly, they’re a lot more susceptible to UV damage, meaning sunscreen, protective gear (such as hats) and keeping little ones in the shade is more important than we even realized.

baby with sunscreen

Sunscreen use in childhood prevents melanoma in adults

Research conducted at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, published in the latest issue of the scientific journal Pigment Cell and Melanoma, has established unequivocally in a natural animal model that the incidence of malignant melanoma in adulthood can be dramatically reduced by the consistent use of sunscreen in infancy and childhood.

According to senior author John L VandeBerg, PhD, the research was driven by the fact that, despite the increasing use of sunscreen in recent decades, the incidence of malignant melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer, continues to increase dramatically. The American Cancer Society estimated that more than 75,000 new cases of melanoma would be diagnosed in the US in 2014.

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“While sunscreen is highly effective in preventing sunburn, this paradox has led some to question whether sunscreen is effective in preventing melanoma caused by ultraviolet (UV) light,” VandeBerg says. “It has been suggested that sunscreen enables people to receive more UV exposure without becoming sunburned, and that increased exposure to UV light has led to an increasing incidence of melanoma.”

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Sun protection for younger people

Because children will be exposed to UV radiation for their whole lives, it is important to teach sun safety practices at an early age. Help your kids or check them them to be sure skin protection is applied and reapplied as needed to all exposed areas.

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As often as you can, keep babies out of direct sunlight. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends only using sunscreen on infants for small areas such as the face and back of hands where protection from clothing is inadequate. There are many kinds of sun protection clothing available, in sizes to fit everyone in the family.

Testing SPF-15 sunscreens

Questions regarding the effectiveness of sunscreen have remained unanswered in part because, until recently, no natural mammalian model of UV-induced melanoma has existed, noted VandeBerg. Scientists at Texas Biomedical Research Institute have established the gray short-tailed opossum, a small marsupial from South America, as such a model, and tested an over-the-counter facial lotion containing SPF 15 sunscreen for its ability to prevent UV-induced melanoma.

The Texas Biomed researchers found that the application of lotion containing sunscreen to infant opossums led to a 10-fold reduction in pre-melanotic lesions (known to progress to melanoma), in comparison to infant opossums receiving lotion that did not contain sunscreen. This difference in the development of lesions occurred even when low doses of UV light were applied – so low that they caused no sunburn or even reddening of the skin in the opossums that did not receive sunscreen.

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The pre-melanotic lesions did not appear until the infants had become adolescents (equivalent to early teenagers in humans), and prior experiments established that the pre-melanocytic lesions in opossums do not progress to melanomas until the animals are well into adulthood, as typically occurs in humans.

“Based on these results, we speculate that the reason it is particularly important that sunscreens be used consistently in childhood, and especially in infancy, is because skin cells during growth are dividing much more rapidly than in adulthood, and it is during cell division that the cells are most susceptible to UV-induced damage,” says VandeBerg.

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