Protect Your Children from the Sun

child with sunscreen on by poolJust a few serious sunburns can increase your child’s risk of skin cancer later in life. Getting too much sun doesn’t just happen at the pool, beach, or on vacation. Kids need protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays every time they’re outdoors.

UV rays react with a chemical in our skin called melanin. Melanin is the first defense against the sun because it absorbs dangerous UV rays and helps prevent serious skin damage. Melanin is found in different concentrations in our skin, resulting in different skin colors. The lighter someone’s natural skin color, the less melanin it has to absorb UV rays and protect itself. Anyone with a fair complexion, lighter skin and eye color, is more likely to have freckles because there’s less melanin in the skin. The darker a person’s natural skin color, the more melanin it has to protect itself. But both dark- and light-skinned kids need protection from UV rays because any tanning or burning causes skin damage.

We all need at least some sun exposure. Vitamin D is made when sunlight hits the skin which helps us to absorb calcium when we eat. It doesn’t take much time in the sun to get the vitamin D we need.  Unprotected, repeated exposure to the sun can cause skin damage, eye damage, and skin cancer.  Even people in their twenties have been diagnosed with skin cancer.

Safe Sun Guidelines:

Seek shade.

UV rays are strongest and most harmful during midday, between 10 am and 4 pm. If possible, it’s best to plan indoor activities then. If you have to be outdoors during this time, seek shade under a tree, an umbrella, or a portable canopy. Use these options to prevent sunburn, not just to seek relief after it’s happened.

Cover up.

Clothing to cover up your child’s skin helps protect against UV rays. A long-sleeved shirt and long pants with a tight weave are best but they aren’t always practical. A T-shirt, long shorts, or a beach cover-up are also good choices. It’s still best to double up on protection by applying sunscreen and keeping your child in the shade when possible.

Use a hat.

Hats that shade the face, scalp, ears, and neck give great protection. A wide-brimmed hat will help protect your face, neck and ears from the sun. A hat with a six-inch brim all around is the best. Baseball caps are popular with kids, but do not protect their ears and neck. If your child wears a cap, be sure to protect exposed areas with sunscreen.

Wear sunglasses.

They protect your child’s eyes from UV rays, which can cause cataracts (clouding of the eye lens, which leads to blurred vision) later in life. Buy sunglasses that wrap around and block as close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays as possible. Not all sunglasses provide the same level of ultraviolet protection; darkened plastic or glass lenses without special UV filters just trick the eyes into a false sense of safety. Purchase sunglasses with labels ensuring that they provide 100% UV protection. Not all kids enjoy wearing sunglasses. To encourage them to wear them, let kids select a style they like. Fun, multicolored frames or ones with cartoon characters are available. Don’t forget that kids want to be like grown-ups. If you wear sunglasses, your kids are more likely to follow your example. Providing sunglasses early in childhood encourages the habit of wearing them in the future.

Apply sunscreen.

Use sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and UVA and UVB protection every time your child goes outside. It’s best to apply sunscreen generously 30 minutes before going outdoors.  Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the ears, nose, lips, and the tops of feet. Take sunscreen with you to reapply during the day, especially after your child swims or exercises. Even waterproof and water-resistant sunscreen should be reapplied after swimming or at least every two hours.

Infants have thinner skin and underdeveloped melanin, so their skin burns more easily than that of older kids. Sunscreen should usually not be applied to babies under six months of age (so follow the directions on the package before using a sunscreen product on babies less than six months old). Your baby’s best defense against sunburn is avoiding the sun or staying in the shade.

Turning pink?

Too much sun hurts. Unprotected skin can be damaged by the sun’s UV rays in as little as 15 minutes. If your child’s skin looks “a little pink” today, it may be burned tomorrow morning. To prevent further burning, get your child out of the sun completely.

Healthy tan?

There’s no such thing as a healthy tan. Tanned skin is damaged skin. Any change in the color of your child’s skin after being in the sun, whether sunburn or suntan, indicates damage from UV rays.

To get a tanned appearance, teens might try self-tanning lotions. These offer a safe alternative to ultraviolet exposure. It’s important to remember that these tanning lotions offer no protection from UV rays.

Cool and cloudy?

Your children still need protection. UV rays do the damage, whether it’s warm or cold outside. Clouds do not block UV rays, they filter them, and only slightly.

Plan ahead.

Kids can get sunburned when they are outdoors unprotected for longer than expected. Keep sun protection in your car, bag, or child’s backpack. Encourage your kids to use sunscreen when outdoors and even at school.

Be Sun Safe Yourself. Don’t forget: set a good example by consistently wearing sunscreen, using sunglasses, and limiting your time in the sun. These preventive behaviors not only reduce your risk of sun damage, but teach your kids good sun sense.

If a sunburn occurs, the first step is to get out of the sun. Skin redness and heat, feeling hot and even feeling ill are signs of sunburn. These symptoms can come on hours after your child has been in the sun.  Give plenty of fluids, such as water alternating with Gatorade. If an infant gets sunburn, see your physician. A cool (not cold) bath or compresses can help. Pure aloe vera gel can help. Ibuprofen also helps with pain and can lessen the intensity of the burn. Moisturizers applied to the skin can help rehydrate the skin and lessen itching. A thin layer of 1% hydrocortisone can be applied to help with pain. Avoid petroleum-based products because these prevent heat from escaping. If an infant gets sunburn, or if an older child has a sunburn with blisters, see your physician. Stay in the shade and out of the sun until the sunburn heals.

—This article was written by Barry Holdampf, MD, a family practice physician at the Scott & White Taylor Clinic. He specializes in providing medical care to families, including pediatric and adult patients. Dr. Holdampf can be reached at 512-352-5251.