Remembering to schedule your own full body skin exam is one thing, but what about annual skin check exams for the children in your life? We caught up with Ingrid Polcari, a Pediatric Dermatologist and Assistant Professor at the Department of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota, to find out best practices for children.
At what age should a child have their first skin check and what should a parent or caregiver look for?
Parents should get to know their child’s skin and examine it regularly. Changes in marks on the skin are often the first sign of a problem or concern. It can be normal to be born with moles, or brown birthmarks. Moles can also be acquired over time.
Moles might grow slowly with the growth of your child, but changes like a rapid increase in size, a new shape or changing colors should be brought to the attention of a skin professional for an exam. A board-certified dermatologist, and if possible, one with expertise in Pediatric Dermatology, can help decide which marks are healthy and which need removal.
Are there skin areas where parents should be checking more frequently?
I always tell my patients that I need to check all the skin that they brought with them that day! Then I explain that moles and other skin growths can happen anywhere there is skin, which is why everything needs to be checked. Parents might find that bath time is an easy time to check hidden areas like the skin in the groin, underarms and scalp.
What happens if the doctor notices something suspicious on your child?
First, it’s important to know that skin cancers are extremely rare in children. But, we take changing skin growths seriously. If we have a concern about the safety of a growth or aren’t able to give a medical diagnosis just by looking, we may opt to either monitor closely (with measurements and photographs for example), or recommend something called a skin biopsy. A skin biopsy is a procedure where the skin is numbed with medication and a small sample of the skin is taken so it can be looked at under a microscope by a pathologist with special training in skin conditions.
Is there a pediatric demographic that may be more prone to skin cancer?
Because skin cancers develop slowly, often after years of cumulative suntans and sunburns, it’s much more common to develop skin cancer in adulthood. Children with red-hair have the highest risk of sun damage when compared with children who do not have red hair. This is because the way they make pigment in the skin is different than in children who have darker hair, so they have less “natural defense” against the sun. This also explains why children with red-hair aren’t able to tan, and instead burn or freckle. These kids need extra special attention when it comes to sun protection!
Do you have an opinion on sunscreen application for babies under 6 months or age?
I follow the recommendations of the American Academy of Dermatology and American Academy of Pediatrics, which says that avoiding the sun by seeking shade or using protective clothing or blankets is the best choice for infants less than 6 months. But if this is not possible and skin is exposed to the sun, apply a small amount of “physical blocker” type sunscreen–these are sunscreens with active ingredients of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. And remember that infants overheat easily, so it’s best to minimize exposure to heat and sun for your little ones!
Suggestive planning for next family vacation?
Sun protective clothing tends to be more reliable, less messy and less hassle than sunscreen. Outdoor swimming, especially mid-day when the sun is at its highest intensity, is a very high-risk activity when it comes to sunburn. Sunscreen will wash off quickly while you’re in the water, which means it needs to be reapplied often. Waterproof swimwear (like a long-sleeved swim shirt) does a much better job in that situation.
Must haves in your family vacation beach bag?
Since I have 3 kids, we fill a whole wagon! A sun umbrella, hats, swim shirts, sunscreen, snacks, and some cozy beach cover-ups are vacation musts.
If your child does get a sunburn what should you do?
First, take note and consider what you can do next time to make sure it doesn’t happen again! Sunburns aren’t just painful, they are dangerous and cumulative sunburns over time will increase your child’s risk of skin cancer later in life.
Keep the skin hydrated with a bland white cream, consider taking a cool bath and consider giving a proper dosage of ibuprofen or similar pain reliever as directed in the product guide. Have your child avoid the sun until the burn has fully healed.
Dr. Ingrid Polcari is a board-certified pediatric dermatologist and mother of three active little girls. In her free time, she and her family love to escape the city and enjoy the outdoors and sounds of the Loons in Northern Minnesota.