Kids and teens are typically known to skip the sunscreen because they are too eager to go out and play, or they want to attain the perfect tan. Parents may find themselves in a never-ending battle to convince their children to wear sunscreen regularly, but scientists have unveiled a strategy that could get them to lather up. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, teens adopt sun-protective behaviors only when they are warned about premature wrinkling and aging, but not skin cancer.

Sunlight exposure is one of the primary causes of premature aging skin, or photoaging, and skin cancers. The two types of sun rays — ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) — affect the deeper and outer layers of the skin by thinning it, and making it susceptible to injuries, and damage. UV exposure damages collagen fibers and the elastin, says the University of Maryland Medical Center, as these proteins are what primarily help maintain the tissue below the skin stay springy and strong. In response, the body produces enzymes, and some of these enzymes break down the collagen which causes an uneven formation of collagen fibers — a cycle that leads to wrinkles.

For teens and adults who want to ward off wrinkles, it’s best to keep sun exposure to a minimum. Dermatologists, like Dr. Eric Bernstein of the Centers for Cosmetic Laser Surgery, say 90 percent of the skin wrinkles they treat in patients are due to excessive sun exposure, not due to the normal aging process. It is essential for kids and teens to apply sunscreen since 50 to 80 percent of skin damage caused by the sun occurs in childhood. Applying sunscreen before going outdoors will help beauty enthusiasts to reduce their wrinkles.

While vanity may be the driving force behind why teens sunbathe and don’t use sunscreen, this same vanity can help them slather on sunblock, for beauty’s sake. Researchers at the University of Colorado Cancer Center investigated whether two health-ed videos would cause a small cohort of teens to use more sunscreen six weeks after it was shown. Fifty high school participants were recruited for the study from February through March 2012.

The teens completed questionnaires that showed their baseline knowledge about UV light and the use of sun-protective behaviors prior to viewing the videos. The participants were then randomized into two groups: one which viewed the health-based video that emphasized skin cancer risk, and the other viewed an appearance-based video that emphasized cosmetic changes due to UV exposure. After viewing the videos, six weeks later, the teens completed questionnaires that showed the knowledge they learned and the changes (if any) made in their sun-protective behaviors.

Despite watching two distinct videos, the students learned and absorbed the same amount of information about UV light. However, the researchers found a difference in sun-protective behaviors among both groups. Teens who watched the health-based video did not show any statistically significant increase in sunscreen use, but those who were shown the appearance-based video reported a dramatic increase in their sun-protective behaviors.

“A lot have undergone tanning or never wear sunscreen. You can tell that when we talk about the skin cancer risk, it doesn’t faze them. But when you talk about premature wrinkling and aging, they listen a little more closely,” said April W. Armstrong, MD MPH, investigator at the CU Cancer Center and vice chair of Clinical Research at the CU School of Medicine Department of Dermatology, in the news release. While the study did not find telling teens UV exposure will lead to skin cancer as effective, it does highlight the importance of how health officials construct their messages to a younger group.

It seems that kids and teens are more compelled to listen when they’re told their looks may be in jeopardy. In a similar study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the skin of over 500 children — mainly of 12-year-old boys and girls — were studied. Researchers sought to how being even being exposed to one second of sunlight can contribute to damaging skin. The photo was snapped using near UV light as the flash. The results of these photos really freaked out the kids that they did not want to look at the images at all. The UV photos even showed skin damage in children as young as 2. These photos provided the kids with concrete evidence that unsafe sun behaviors can be devastating and age the skin much earlier.

Early teen years may be tough for parents, but it is important to talk with them and emphasize the dangers of sun exposure, even using unconventional methods. Science suggests parents not lecture their kids on sunscreen use, but rather explain how it will effect their looks. Although a shallow approach, this is more likely to get your teen to slather on some sunscreen in the sun.


Armstrong AW, Tuong W. Effect of appearance-based education compared with health-based education on sunscreen use and knowledge: A randomized controlled trial. JAAD. 2014.

Aalborg J, Asdigian NL, Baron AE, Box NF, Crane LA, Gamble RG. Sun damage in ultraviolet photographs correlates with phenotypic melanoma risk factors in 12-year-old children. JAAD. 2012.