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New school year, same risk: Don’t forget the sunscreen

Whether at recess or recreational sports, children and teens are exposed to UV rays and it’s important to protect their skin throughout the school year. Experts recommend re-applying sunscreen after an hour and a half – especially while playing sports outside or swimming. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Kristen Wong) Whether at recess or recreational sports, children and teens are exposed to UV rays and it’s important to protect their skin throughout the school year. Experts recommend re-applying sunscreen after an hour and a half – especially while playing sports outside or swimming. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Kristen Wong)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — As summer winds down and school gets into full swing, it can be easy to cast aside sunscreen and sun protective gear. But remembering to protect children and teenagers from UV rays is as important throughout the school year as it is during the summer.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Rachel Ellis, a dermatologist at Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, said starting daily skin care habits at an early age is essential – especially for the future. Skin damage from sun exposure can take months or years to show up, and much of it results from childhood. Making sunscreen application part of a child’s or teenager’s everyday routine, just like brushing teeth, can make a big difference.

“It’s really important when people are young to start those good habits and protect the skin as much as they can so that it will last them their entire lives,” said Ellis, adding that the skin is the body’s largest and most visible organ. “You’d do everything you can to protect your heart, why wouldn’t you do everything you can to protect your largest organ?”

Sun damage as a child or teenager can lead to health issues months or years after exposure, including diagnosis of skin cancer as early as in an adult’s 20s or early 30s, Ellis said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it takes only a few serious sunburns during childhood to increase a person’s risk for skin cancer.

While the sun’s rays may not feel hot during the school year, its UV rays can still cause damage – even in the winter. Keeping sunscreen readily available, whether in a backpack or locker, helps protect a child or teenager when they go to sports practice or spend recreational time outside, said Ellis.

Navy Cmdr. Christopher Dolan, chief of Fort Belvoir Community Hospital’s dermatology clinic in northern Virginia, recommends re-applying sunscreen after an hour and a half – especially while playing sports outside or swimming. Sun protective gear, which can often be found in sporting goods stores and surf shops, also works well for people who do not like to wear sunscreen regularly, he added.

“[For] children, and even adults, protective gear has gotten a lot better than it used to be,” said Dolan, adding that a lot of it is made with UV protection. This kind of gear can include long sleeves, pants, sunglasses, rash guards, and hats. When children wear this gear, the SPF remains 100 percent with them, Ellis said.

All skin types are vulnerable to sun damage, but children who have fair complexions, light-colored eyes, and are prone to freckling are at increased risk for it. Genetics, particularly if skin cancer runs in the family, can also increase risk. While vitamin D from sun is good for health, any change in pigment means UV damage, said Dolan. The skin has an immune system to help repair itself, but it can become stunned with too much sun damage, he added. Keeping the skin’s immune system strong with good daily habits is crucial for long-lasting health.

“I always tell my patients the best sunscreen in the world is the one that you like and the one that you will want to wear,” said Ellis. “The skin is kind of the window to the body. You need to take care of it.”

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