Should Sunburn Be a Summer Rite of Passage?

child smiling with sunglasses and a hatI always laugh when the doctor asks me, "So, did you ever get sunburned as a kid?" I want to respond, "C'mon Doc, who hasn't gotten sunburned as a kid?" But I usually just say, "Yes, I did." I don't know about you, but the occasional sunburn was definitely part of my childhood.

Those "normal" childhood sunburns suddenly became a more important part of my medical history when skin cancer surgery marked my entry into adulthood at 18. I had been diagnosed with melanoma, the type of skin cancer that is more likely to develop after getting "intermittent" or random sunburns as a kid. Also, people who are fair with freckles or with a family history of melanoma are at increased risk.

Help kids prevent skin cancer

The Community Preventive Services Task Force found that we can prevent skin cancer for today's kids by having smart policies and sun-safe education in daycare centers, elementary schools, and middle schools.

While no one will ever be able to say for sure why I've had several more skin cancers after that first one at 18, it's likely that getting sunburned at the 8th grade pool party was a contributing factor. Or maybe it was the sunburn during a beach vacation when I was a teenager. Or maybe it was that one time I went to the pool with a friend and we both forgot to bring sunscreen. Or… well, you get the picture.

Hopefully, summertime rituals are changing for today's kids. An expert task force just released new recommendations for sun protection in communities — the places where people work, play, and go to school. The task force found that we can prevent skin cancer for today's kids by having smart policies and sun-safe education in daycare centers, elementary schools, and middle schools. The task force also found that we can help both adults and kids avoid skin cancer by having educational messages and comprehensive policies in outdoor places like parks and pools.

The recommendations focus, in part, on reaching children when they're young. The task force found that younger children are more willing than teenagers to protect themselves from the sun and more willing to be coached by adults on sun-safe behaviors. When you're getting your child ready for camp or daycare or summer school, think about the policies there. Does her elementary or middle school have policies on sun protection? Is she allowed to carry sunscreen, or does she have to go to the nurse's office to get it? Are there shaded outdoor places to play during recess? Are all of her caregivers empowered to put a shirt or sunscreen on her? As adults, we can help children understand that sun protection is for every day, in every place.

Because putting sunscreen on a squirming 3-year-old is not always easy, know that you have other options to protect your family from the sun. Getting kids in the habit of wearing hats, sunglasses, and long-sleeve shirts or swim shirts is a great option. It's also smart to avoid the sun during the middle of the day or when a child's shadow is shorter than they are. Use that time to have lunch, take a nap, read a book, or watch a movie.

Now that the weather is warming up and summer celebrations — graduations, pool parties, barbeques — are in full swing, don't let sunburns become a rite of summer for the kids in your life. Help us raise a generation of kids who don't have to suffer through sunburns every year. Talk to them about how to take care of themselves so they know what to do when you are farther away than the next beach chair.

Share your tips with us! Tell us what sun protection looks like in your community and how you help kids in your family protect themselves.