Suntan as beauty ideal hinders sun protection for children

Parents in the Netherlands don’t protect their children sufficiently from the sun. An overly positive view of suntanned skin seems to be partly to blame. More than a third of all children between the ages of 4 and 12 are sunburnt at least once a year. The recently launched National Skin Cancer Action Plan recommends practical solutions such as shady play areas and public sunscreen dispensers. But more is needed, says health scientist Karlijn Thoonen. Alongside educational programmes for parents and children, she advocates an influencer campaign questioning the positive perception of tanned skin. ‘We really have to get away from the idea that a suntan is “attractive and healthy”.’


Thoonen will receive her doctorate from Maastricht University on Thursday for research on sun protection behaviour among parents and children. Her dissertation shows that parents are well aware of the harmful effects of the sun and do aim to protect their children as well as possible. Nevertheless, the Netherlands has high sunburn figures among children. ‘So something is going wrong somewhere,’ says Thoonen. One of the most striking results of her PhD research is that many parents have a positive perception of tanned skin. A suntan is seen as attractive and even healthy. ‘This positive view of tanned skin is deeply rooted in our Western society,’ says Thoonen. ‘But a so-called “healthy tan” is nothing of the sort. A suntan also means the skin is damaged. It may not be as harmful as sunburn, but the UV radiation that causes a suntan adds to lifelong skin damage that increases the risk of skin cancer.’

Skin cancer

The risk of skin cancer can be drastically reduced if children suffer little or no sun damage in their early years. Sunburn during childhood doubles the risk of skin cancer later in life. In the Netherlands, skin cancer is the most frequently occurring type of cancer, and is relatively common – the country has the fifth highest incidence in the world, and the rate has almost quadrupled in the past 30 years. ‘The recently launched National Skin Cancer Action Plan is a crucial step in the right direction to get skin cancer prevention on the national political agenda,’ Thoonen says. ‘Making protective behaviour easier, for example by creating shade in recreation areas, could have a positive effect in the short term on improved sun protection for Dutch children. But more time is needed to address the norm of tanned skin; it’s important that children and young people learn as early as possible that a tan produced by exposure to the sun or a sunbed is far from healthy and should no longer be seen as an ideal of beauty. This is the only way the social norm can change in the long term, as we have seen happen for example with the norm in relation to smoking.

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