Safe Sun Behavior Uncommon In Preadolescent Children

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

With warmer days ahead, children will start flocking to the outdoors for fresh air and sunshine. However, according to a new study in the journal Pediatrics, only 25% of them will be appropriately shielded from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays [1]. This is down from 50% of children who reported using sunscreen “often or always” in 2004.

Sun care on the beachImage credit: Skin care on the back via Shutterstock

Use of sunscreen is about more than just preventing painful burns. A single sunburn during childhood nearly doubles the risk of melanoma — a particularly aggressive and serious type of skin cancer — in adulthood [2], and reports indicate that at least half of all children experience at least one sunburn by age 11 [3].

Sunlight is crucial to life on Earth. Without the sun’s radiant energy, the planet would be an uninhabitable chunk of ice. Visible light from the sun fuels photosynthesis, the process by which plants make sugar from the molecules carbon dioxide and water. This provides food for herbivores and omnivores, which in turn provide food for higher consumers.

Herbivore: an organism that gets its energy from eating plants, and only plants.
Omnivore: an organism that gets its energy from eating plants or animals.

In essence, the sun is the ultimate source of food energy on the planet. Even the sun’s damaging rays — those in the ultraviolet region of the light spectrum — serve important purposes with regard to health and wellness. For instance, humans make vitamin D when ultraviolet light hits the skin.

Ultraviolet light, however, falls into the category of ionizing radiation, which means that it (like x-rays and like gamma radiation, which comes from nuclear reactions) is capable of breaking chemical bonds in molecules. When ultraviolet light hits the skin, it penetrates a short distance. The light can then break chemical bonds in biological molecules, including skin proteins and genetic material, or DNA. The former leads to the visible signs of aging associated with excess sun exposure, such as wrinkles and sagging skin. The latter ultimately leads to skin cancer.

One of the body’s natural protection mechanisms against overexposure to ultraviolet light is increased production of melanin, which is a chemical that makes the skin darker in color and helps protect the cell from further damage to DNA. For this reason, some people consider a tan protective against the sun, or even healthy. Darkening of the skin in response to sunlight, however, while protective to some extent, is also indicative of damage to the skin cells. It’s a bit like the body’s way of closing the barn door after (some of) the cows get out, since it takes cellular damage to stimulate the cell to produce more of the protective chemical melanin. Unfortunately, tans are seen as attractive. According to the Pediatrics study, the percent of children reporting liking to have a tan increased from 54 to 67% percent between 2004 and 2007, which could at least partially explain the decreased use of sunscreen during that same period of time.

As part of an effort to educate children and their parents about the damaging effects of the sun, the American Cancer Society promotes the slogan “Slip! Slop! Slap! And Wrap!” In longer form, the slogan reads: “Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat, and wrap on sunglasses.” The Pediatrics findings, however, suggest that this message may not be reaching preadolescent children. The authors recommend finding new ways of encouraging sun-safe behavior in this demographic.


  1. Dusza et al. Prospective Study of Sunburn and Sun Behavior Patterns During Adolescence. Pediatrics 2012;129:309–317.
  2. Dennis et al. Sunburns and risk of cutaneous melanoma: does age matter? A comprehensive meta-analysis. Ann Epidemiol. 2008 Aug;18(8):614-27.
    View abstract
  3. Cokkinides et al. Trends in sunburns, sun protection practices, and attitudes toward sun exposure protection and tanning among US adolescents, 1998-2004. Pediatrics. 2006 Sep;118(3):853-64.
    View abstract
About the Author

Kirstin Hendrickson, Ph.D., is a science journalist and faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University. She has a PhD in Chemistry, and studied mechanisms of damage to DNA during her graduate career. Kirstin also holds degrees in Zoology and Psychology. Currently, both in her teaching and in her writing, she’s interested in methods of communicating about science, and in the reciprocal relationship between science and society. She has written a textbook called Chemistry In The World, which focuses on the ways in which chemistry affects everyday life, and the ways in which humans affect each other and the environment through chemistry.