Vast majority of children have experienced sunburn

Increases risk of skin cancer later in life
  • Deborah Condon

Almost 90% of children aged between 10 and 17 in Ireland have experienced sunburn, while 74% have experienced it at least once in the past year, a new report has revealed.

The report, Children's exposure to ultraviolet radiation - A risk profile for future skin cancers in Ireland, was published by the Institute of Public Health and NUI Galway. It examines, for the first time, children's exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and sunbeds, UV skin protection behaviours, and sunburn.

Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland, with around 11,000 cases diagnosed every year. A further 1,100 people are diagnosed annually with invasive melanoma, which is the most deadly form of skin cancer.

Cases of skin cancer are expected to increase significantly in the coming years and childhood sunburn, excess sun exposure and the use of sunbeds are all known to increase the risk of the disease.

Children's skin is more vulnerable to UV damage and those who experience severe sunburn (three or more instances before the age of 20), are two-to-four times more likely to develop the disease later in life.

According to the findings in the report, 88% of those aged between 10 and 17 said that they had experienced sunburn in their lifetime, with 74% having experienced it during the past year. However, there are no reliable estimates of sunburn severity.

When it comes to sun protection behaviours, 50% of children aged between 10 and 17 said that they wear protective clothing to cover arms and legs in the sun, 72% said that they wear sunglasses on a sunny day and 83% said they use sunscreen always or sometimes.

There were gender differences, with girls more likely to use sunscreen and sunglasses and boys more likely to wear hats.

When it came to sunbed use, 3% of those aged between 10 and 17 reported using a sunbed, however it was unclear whether this was in a home or commercial setting. Children under the age of 18 are prohibited from using commercial sunbeds under the Public Health (Sunbeds) Act 2014.

The report noted that while older teenagers aged 15-17 reported a marginally higher frequency of sunbed use than those aged 11-14, this was not statistically significant.

According to the study's co-author, Dr Helen McAvoy, of the Institute of Public Health, the message about protecting your skin from the sun has never been more important as many people are spending more time outside as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions.

"The frequency of sunburn found in this report is concerning and shows there is a need for focused action and research on skin cancer prevention. Being outside and keeping active is good for children's physical and mental health, but they also need to be sun smart.

"As measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 are still in place, and as school holidays start, it is likely that more children will be outdoors playing. We need to ensure that people are not over exposed to the sun, avoid peak UV hours, use sunscreen, and wear sunglasses, hats, and clothing to cover arms and legs," Dr McAvoy explained.

Meanwhile, according to Prof Saoirse Nic Gabhainn of NUI Galway's Health Promotion Research Centre, this is the first time that children's sun behaviour "has been comprehensively recorded in Ireland".

"It's clear that this area requires focused development to protect children. This survey data will be important for planning future awareness programmes and targeting resources to those children and families who most need it," she said.

The report was welcomed by Dr Triona McCarthy, director of public health at the National Cancer Control Programme.

"UV exposure during the first 10-15 years of life makes a disproportionately large contribution to lifetime risk of skin cancer. This report will inform development of resources and implementation of programmes to support children and young people to enjoy being active outdoors safely.

"By adopting the SunSmart 5 S's, the majority of skin cancers caused by UV sun exposure could be prevented," she noted.

The SunSmart 5 S's to protect skin are:
-Slip on clothing that covers your skin, such as long sleeves and collared t-shirts
-Slop on sunscreen on exposed areas, using factor 50+ for children
-Slap on a wide-brimmed hat
-Seek shade, especially if outdoors between 11am and 3pm. Always use a sunshade on a child's buggy
-Slide on sunglasses to protect your eyes.

The full report can be read here.


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