How to look after your child’s skin health

Did you know that childhood sun exposure is the leading cause of skin cancer? Around 64 per cent of children are sunburnt every year, putting them at greater risk of developing skin tumours later in life.

Let’s explore the steps you can take to protect your child’s skin while out-and-about these school holidays and learn when children should start regular skin exams.

How to protect your child’s skin from the sun

Skin cancer is predominantly caused by skin damage as a result of unprotected exposure to the sun, and unfortunately most of our lifetime skin damage occurs during childhood. That means the skin cancers you find in your 50s, 60s and beyond probably resulted from damage incurred decades ago.

Reducing your child’s risk of developing skin cancer later in life hinges on minimising the amount of sun exposure they receive in their early years. It is therefore incredibly important that children use sun protection every day. Wearing a broad-brimmed hat and SPF30+ sunscreen whenever they go outdoors is essential — and don’t forget to reapply every two hours or more often if sweating or swimming.

You can also help protect their skin by checking the UV Index before heading outside and avoiding the outdoors when the index reaches 3 or above (usually 10am to 2pm, but you can check your weather forecast). Seek shade whenever you are outdoors and remember that UV radiation reflects off concrete, water, sand and snow. Clothes that cover all exposed skin, such as collared shirts, sleeves, and long pants, are also important.

Babies under 12 months should be kept out of the sun completely. Babies under six months of age have highly sensitive skin, so minimal sunscreen is recommended. For infants, it is best to provide physical barriers against the sun, such as hats and loose-fitting clothes with tightly woven fabrics.

Learning sun safe habits now can help your children develop healthy practices later in life. Here are nine tips for encouraging your kids to wear sunscreen so they can safely enjoy the sun.

When is your child’s mole a cause for concern?

New freckles and moles regularly grow on children’s skin. In fact, most of the moles we develop during our lifetime grow between birth and young adulthood. The appearance of new moles is even more frequent when a child is often outside, especially during the holidays, playing sport or taking part in outdoor school activities.

However, it is still a good idea to monitor children’s skin for new or abnormal growths. Keep in mind the ABCDE guide to help identify melanoma. This includes asymmetrical moles, moles with irregular borders, moles larger than six millimetres, moles with multiple colours, and moles that are growing. Other signs of skin cancer can include lesions on the skin that won’t heal, or any growths that have become raised but were previously flat.

If you find any lesions on your child’s skin that stand out as different from the rest, it’s important to get a full-body skin cancer check as soon as possible.

When should children start regular skin checks?

Melanoma is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in young Australians aged 15-39.

The good news is that the risk of being diagnosed with skin cancer during childhood is low, and regular skin checks might not be necessary until children reach 15 years of age, when the effects of skin damage might begin to show.

However, there are times when a skin cancer check might be a good idea for young children:

  • If they have a family history of skin cancer, especially melanoma. Having a family history of skin cancer increases your own risk of developing the disease, no matter how old you are.
  • If they have fair skin and a large number of moles. Having more than 100 moles puts children at higher than average risk for skin cancer.

Learn more from Dr Alvin Prakash about skin checks in young people:

The effects may seem minimal when it occurs, but sun exposure in childhood leads to harmful skin cancers later in life. Once the damage is done, the best defence against skin cancer is early detection, when the chances of successful treatment and survival are best.

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