The other day, I had the opportunity
to run into a colleague who had been away for the first
part of the summer. As he approached, I noticed the redness
in his skin. It wasn't a deep red, but that type of redness
you get from being out in the sun maybe just a little bit
I walked up to him and said, "Oh, I'm so sorry." And
he said, "About what?"
I said, "The damage to your skin."
He was taken by surprise and commented, "I was only sunburned."
I said, "But do you realize that you've now increased
your risk of getting melanoma or non-melanotic skin cancer?"
We've all known people with skin cancers. Luckily, most
of them are the kind that can be treated with non-surgical
procedures or, at worst, removed to leave minimal scarring.
But every year a substantial number of Iowans die from
melanoma. This does not have to happen.
Skin cancer, specifically melanoma, has a 95 percent
survival rate if treated early. We know what to do about
it. If we are going out in the sun, we need to "slip,
slop, slap, wrap" as the Australians started saying in
the early 1980s. Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen, slap
on a hat and wrap on the sunglasses. The message is straightforward.
Unfortunately, many adults think that they don't need
to practice "slip, slop, slap, wrap" any more. This is
a dangerous attitude because data from multiple studies
continue to indicate that the sun is the main cause of
cancer of the skin, and you are never too old to protect
Our children know what to do, but many times parents
do not reinforce the message to wear a hat, wear some
protective clothing, and wear sunscreen. If the message
is reinforced, all too often the message is only "use
sunscreen," but that's not enough.
Public health officials, including the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, promote multiple uses of sun protection.
In fact, for babies, children and youth, the use of sunscreen
should be the last resort. Sun protection of babies should
consist of the use of loose-fitting, closely woven fabrics,
or layers of loosely-woven fabrics, a hat to protect the
baby's face, neck and ears, and keeping the baby out of
the sun and in dark shade as much as possible.
Sunscreen should only be used after these other recommendations
are followed. With children and youths, similarly the
promotion of loose-fitting clothes, hats and encouraging
them to play in the shade is the method that should take
However, the best way to improve children's and teenagers'
sun protection behaviors is by parents being role models.
In the bright sunshine of this Iowa August, make sure
the whole family is slipping, slopping, slapping and wrapping
to prevent the very real danger of skin cancer.
John Lowe is professor and head of community and behavioral
health in the University of Iowa College of Public Health.