Kids aren’t all that great about using sunscreen when they’re in fifth grade, and by the time they reach eighth grade all bets are off. That’s the chief finding of a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics.


Researchers led by Stephen Dusza of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York interviewed 360 10-year-olds about their sun-related behaviors, including sunscreen use, desire to tan and their experience with sunburn. That was in 2004. Three years later they asked the same kids the same questions.

The first time around, 53 percent of the youngsters said they’d had a sunburn during the previous summer, and another 53 percent said they “liked a tan.” Fifty percent reported regularly wearing sunscreen when they spent at least 6 hours outdoors in the summer.

Three years made a big difference. When interviewed as 14-year-olds, about the same number reported having been sunburned during the preceding summer, and 66 percent said they liked a tan. Only 25 percent said they wore sunscreen. Interestingly, that lack of use didn’t translate into increased reported incidence of sunburn; that may have been because the total amount of time spent outside didn’t increase, the authors note.

The researchers express concern over those figures, mostly because childhood sunburn is known to increase risk of developing melanoma later in life. Kids’ seemingly casual attitudes toward the damage sunlight (and the UV light from tanning beds) suggests that education efforts may be required to remind them to avoid prolonged sun exposure and to slather on the ‘screen.

The study did not look into whether the older kids used sunscreen less because their parents were no longer applying it for them or reminding them to use it. “That’s definitely a possibility,” Dusza told me on the phone.

Do your kids use sunscreen? Do you worry about their developing skin cancer later in life?