Woman putting sunscreen on child

With school starting back up and the summer heat sticking around, most kids and families are going to be running around outside, going to the pool or spending time at the beach to stay cool. If you are not careful, however, a bad sunburn can ruin your good time and possibly put you at risk for future health problems. That’s why it’s important to apply sunscreen before venturing out into the sun.

Dr. Casey Duncan knows this all too well. As an assistant professor in the Department of Surgery with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and a surgical oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann, she has seen her share of skin cancer patients. As a mother of two, she also knows the struggles of trying to protect her own kids.  

“My children don’t want to put sunscreen on,” she says. “It’s a battle every summer.”

But, like so many parents, she finds herself slathering them up just the same. She knows the potential consequences of not taking this extra step. She was a competitive swimmer as a teen, had sunburns regularly, and didn’t think much of it at the time.

“I was really bad growing up about putting on sunscreen. Really bad,” Duncan said. “I just shake my head thinking about it. Now I see patients with melanoma and I’m kicking myself for not doing better about it.”

Melanoma is not the most common type of skin cancer, but it can be the most dangerous. It’s said to be the fastest growing type of cancer seen in men in the United States and the second fastest growing type seen in women. During heat of the summer when children are likely spending more time in the sun, Dr. Duncan urges parents to be vigilant about protecting their kids and themselves. The American Academy of Dermatologists suggests using at least an SPF of 30, which is said to block 97% of the sun’s UVB rays.

“I go a little further and always buy an SPF of 70 or higher to use on my children,” Duncan said. “It’s important to cover all their exposed skin.  It should take about an ounce of sunscreen to complete the task.”

If you are using “spray-on” sunscreen, Dr. Duncan says there are a couple of things you need to remember:

  • It’s very important to spray evenly over your body from only 6 inches away.
  • You should also always remember to rub in the sunscreen spray and then wait to go into any water for at least 15 minutes so it can absorb into the skin. 
  • Regular re-application of sunscreen is key because over time the sunscreen will wear off.

Dr. Duncan urges you to have annual skin checks by your doctor, and even more frequently if you have a family history of cancer.

You should also do your own skin exams where you watch for irregularities using the American Cancer Society’s ABCDE Rule as a guide, looking for spots that have any of the following features:

  • is for Asymmetry: One half of a mole or birthmark does not match the other.
  • is for Border: The edges are irregular, ragged, notched or blurred.
  • is for Color: The color is not the same all over and may include different shades of brown or black, or sometimes with patches of pink, red, white or blue.
  • is for Diameter: The spot is larger than 6 millimeters across (about ¼ inch – the size of a pencil eraser), although melanomas can sometimes be smaller than this.
  • is for Evolving: The mole is changing in size, shape or color.

“If anything looks unusual or different you should get it checked out,” she says.

Additionally, Dr. Duncan offers these tips to help you and your family reduce your risk of exposure to the sun’s harmful rays:

  • Avoid outdoor activity during the peak sun hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Seek shade as often as possible if you must be outdoors.
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats and clothing made with UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor).
  • Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Avoid indoor tanning which also exposes you to UV rays.
  • Drink plenty of water.

“Anything you can do now to reduce your family’s exposure to the hot sun can help avoid issues with skin cancer in the future,” Duncan said.

Dr. Duncan is a surgical oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann and specializes in skin and soft tissue cancers.

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