Sun smart: Children need to cover up to stay safe

Sun smart: Children need to cover up to stay safe

A large-scale study finds a worrying degree of sunburn among children, says Helen O'Callaghan

Sun smart: Children need to cover up to stay safe
Dr Helen McAvoy,director of policy with Institute of Public Health, warns that experiencing severe sunburn at least three times in childhood doubles risk of developing skin cancer in adulthood.

Nine out of 10 schoolchildren in Ireland have experienced sunburn at least once – and this is true for three-quarters of them for the past year alone.

As school holidays got underway this week, it’s startling to find 40% of 10 to 17-year-olds have been sunburned more than four times.

The findings are from a new report by the Institute of Public Health and NUI Galway, which examines for the first time children’s exposure to UV radiation from sun and sun-beds, UV skin protection behaviours, and sunburn. 

The study looked at more than 10,000 children and will be used to inform the implementation of the National Skin Cancer Prevention Plan.

Dr Helen McAvoy, director of policy with Institute of Public Health, says she was taken aback that the figures were so high. She points to a trend of rising skin cancer in Ireland and warns that experiencing severe sunburn at least three times in childhood doubles risk of developing skin cancer in adulthood.

“The National Cancer Registry projects the number of skin cancers will double in the next 25 years. There’s a long time lag between sun damage in childhood and subsequent adult skin cancer. 

"Many diagnosed with skin cancer now are in their 50s and 60s and that relates to childhood experience of sunburn.”

Dr McAvoy says the report shows four out of five children use sunscreen on sunny days – but their adoption of other sun-safety measures is low. 

“Less than half covered up with clothing on sunny days – long sleeves, trousers. Few used shade or avoided the hottest hours of the day.”

In fact, just 32% of schoolchildren reported avoiding peak UV hours of the day. Around 50% wore protective clothing to cover arms/legs when in the sun, while 17% reported never using sunscreen. 

Girls were more likely to wear sunscreen/sunglasses/clothes that cover arms and legs, as well as avoid peak UV hours on sunny days. Boys were more likely to wear hats on sunny days.

Even more worryingly, three percent of schoolchildren reported using a sun-bed in the last 12 months. 

The report doesn’t say to what extent this happened in commercial premises – but providing a sun-bed service to under-18s is against the law here.

Pointing out that many parents think one application of sun-screen is enough (it isn’t – it must be re-applied frequently, particularly after swimming), Dr McAvoy says more awareness is needed that sun-screen isn’t the only – or even the first – line of defence. 

“We’d like to see children adopt a blend of sun-safety measures rather than relying on sunscreen alone.”

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