Riverside Middle School sunscreen lesson

Riverside Middle School eighth-grader Kalena Hungerford-Ciervo demonstrates what a teaspoon of sunscreen looks like with the help of Billings Clinic dermatologist Samuel Reck and Riverside science teacher Katy Lefler during class Thursday, May 4, 2017.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

When Kalena Hungerford-Ciervo was a young child, getting sunscreen put on was a suffocating experience.

"It felt like they just put a whole bottle of ketchup on me," the Riverside Middle School eighth-grader said.

Such experiences hardly endear sunscreen to kids, who are often bombarded by marketing featuring deeply-tanned models. But one teacher at Riverside has made the science behind sunburns an emphasis in her teaching, and has the life experience to back it up.

In 2012, eighth-grade science teacher Katy Lefler was diagnosed with a skin melanoma on her back and subsequently had it removed. When she thought about her skin damage, childhood sunburns stood out.

That's the case for most people, said Billings Clinic dermatologist Dr. Sam Reck, who spoke to Lefler's class Thursday. Traditional sun damage wisdom says 80 percent of skin damage occurs before age 18.

"That's when you go out and play," he said.

Lefler's class learned about how UV rays work and conducted experiments using light-sensitive paper to determine the effectiveness of different sunscreens. It's a topic that's in the science curriculum each year, but Lefler puts a special emphasis on it.

"It's not just textbook-driven science," she said.

Even with education, a level of comfort — avoiding that ketchup-doused feeling — is important, Reck said.

"If you hate it and it's super greasy, you're not going to wear it and it's not going to be helpful," he said.

In a state like Montana, where outdoor activities are popular, it becomes even more important, especially at high altitudes.

Reck had a handful of kids in the room stand up to demonstrate their 1-in-5 odds of getting skin cancer. In some sun-doused countries, like Australia, the odds of skin cancer jump to 2-in-3.

"That's basically the odds of getting acne as an American teenager," he said. 

Reck explained that a tan is still skin damage that can lead to cancer. 

"A healthy tan is an oxymoron," he said. "It doesn't exist."

Students peppered Reck with questions ranging from cancer concerns about swimming pool visits to spray tans. 

The spray tans are OK, but avoid tanning beds, the dermatologist said. 

"They're dangerous. You're more likely to get skin cancers, more likely to get melanoma. ... It's great for business."

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.