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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 too long.

John Lowe
Behavioral health

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 yourself.

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 precedence.

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.

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