Understanding and Encouraging Sun Protective Behavior in Youth Athletes
May is Skin Cancer Awareness month in the United States, and with good reason. This month ushers in the beginning of the summer season – when school gets out, and many outdoor activities ensue, especially for children. Of course, more time outdoors means greater exposure to the damaging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Research from the Skin Cancer Foundation indicates that the risk of developing skin cancer, including potentially deadly melanoma, doubles with a history of five or more sunburns in a lifetime.
These genuine sun exposure risks can be magnified, especially for youth athletes who engage in an outdoor sport. By understanding what we know today about the sun-protective behaviors of youth athletes and some tips to encourage regular and consistent sun protection in them, we can help reduce our youth’s sun damage risk in the future.
I recently had the opportunity to present a poster of a study that I co-authored with esteemed colleagues in the field, titled: Effects of Gender, Age, Sport, and Geographic Location on Sun Protective Behavior in Youth Athletes, to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. This study shed important light on what we currently know to be true about the sun-protective behaviors of our young athletes, which is essential for helping healthcare professionals, coaches, parents, and youth athletes protect themselves from future sun damage.
The study method involved a survey of more than 600 youth athletes from California, Colorado, and Hawaii. It revealed important information about how these kids view and approach sun protection:
Gender – Female youth athletes, tended to use sunscreen more frequently than male youth athletes.
Age – In both male and female athletes, consistent use of sunscreen during outdoor practices and games tended to decrease with age – especially in the adolescent population, even though coaches mentioned wearing sunscreen more often to this age group.
Sport – Regardless of the type of sport played, sunscreen use was higher during practice time than during games. Track and field coaches were more likely to mention sunscreen use to their athletes than the other sports groups surveyed – including soccer, football, swimming, track and field, and baseball. Additionally, sunscreen use was much higher during games for youth soccer athletes and lowest for youth football athletes.
Geographic Location – From a regional perspective, youth athletes from Colorado received more education and used sunscreen more frequently than athletes from California or Hawaii. Though most of the study participants were from California, Hawaii reported the lowest sunscreen usage among youth athletes.
These study results help researchers and clinicians identify groups of youth athletes who may be at higher sun exposure potential and therefore more significant risk of skin cancer later in life. But the truth is that we must do what we can to help protect ALL our youth from the damaging effects of the sun.
When it comes to kids and sun safety habits, it’s essential to start early and to model the behaviors we want them to create and use throughout life. It’s also crucial to remember that sun safety is also about more than just sunscreen application:
- Coaches can help reduce their athletes’ exposure to the most intense UV rays between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. by scheduling their practices for earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. This can also help reduce the risk of heat illness and dehydration, which can increase during the summer months.
- Seek shade when not actively engaged in playing or practicing and during breaks.
- Hats and sunglasses are extremely helpful in sun protection but may not be feasible for every athlete, depending on the sport type. Breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics that include UV protection are made and available to many youth sports athletes. Covering the skin from the sun’s rays while still being able to comfortably play a sport can be a great way to enhance sun protection.
- When choosing a sunscreen for youth athletes, especially adolescents – choose those with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 or higher and can be easily applied. Stick-based sunscreens that are translucent when used can work well for those children who need to apply their sunscreen at repeated intervals throughout the day.
- Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the ears, the hollows below the eyes, and any parts in the hair on top of the head where the scalp is exposed.
- The lips burn too! Ensure your athlete also uses an SPF-protective (at least 30) lip balm.
An active childhood is a setup for an active life and getting outside – whether engaged in sport or free-play – is critical to childhood development. Armed with an understanding of how the sun affects youth athletes, especially those who may be at greater risk, and tips for ensuring sun protection – all kids can go outside and enjoy the sunny side of life – safer from sunburns!