By Molly Martyn, MD
One of the great aspects of childhood is being outdoors. Whether you are at the swimming pool, a soccer game, or the park, it is important for all family members to practice sun safety. Much of our lifetime sun exposure happens in the first 18 years of our lives, and protecting the skin of infants and children will reduce their skin cancer risk as they grow older.
What are different ways to protect children's skin from the sun?
The first and easiest way to protect children's skin is to be thoughtful about sun exposure. The sun's UV rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so it is safest to plan for time outdoors in the morning or late afternoon.
When possible, stay in the shade. Keep sun hats and sun glasses easily accessible in the stroller or your car. Children should be dressed in cool, comfortable, lightweight clothing to cover their skin. Dark clothing with a tight weave is best (you can test this by holding the cloth up to a light and seeing how much light gets through). Use swim shirts when at the swimming pool. Clothing made to protect from the sun is given an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating.
Finally, for the parts of skin that can't be covered, there are sunblock and sunscreen.
What is the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?
Sunscreen chemically absorbs UV radiation and dissipates it as heat. Sunblock provides a physical barrier that reflects UV radiation. Sunblocks contain compounds like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that make them thick and may leave a visible layer (or block) on the skin. Many products for children contain a combination of both.
How important is SPF? The higher the better?
SPF stands for sun protection factor. It measures how well sunscreen protects from UVB rays. When applied correctly, SPF 15 absorbs 93 percent of the sun's UVB rays, SPF 30 absorbs 97 percent, and SPF 50 absorbs 98 percent.
What should you look for in a sunblock or sunscreen?
Sunscreens and sunblocks are regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the labels contain helpful information. Look for a product that is labeled:
- Broad-Spectrum: this means that it blocks both UVB and UVA sun rays
- SPF 30 or higher
- "Water resistant" or "very water resistant". That means that the SPF is maintained after 40 or 80 minutes in the water.
What is the best way to apply sunscreen?
Use a lot! Most people only use about half of what they need. Cover all exposed areas, paying special attention to the areas that people commonly miss like the ears, the tops of feet and the backs of hands, along the hairline, and even in parts in the hair.
Be careful when applying sunscreen around the eyes. It may be helpful to use a sunscreen stick for easier application in that area.
Sunscreen should be applied to dry skin at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure to allow it to absorb into the skin. Reapply every two hours OR after being in the water or sweating heavily.
Is there anything special to know about protecting babies' skin from the sun?
Babies younger than 6 months have very sensitive skin. As much as possible, they should be kept out of direct sunlight. Dress them in light, protective clothing and use wide-billed sun hats. For areas of their bodies that can't be covered (like their faces or the backs of their hands), use an infant sunblock with at least SPF 30.
What about getting enough vitamin D? Will limiting sun exposure lead to a low vitamin D level?
Sunlight is important for vitamin D synthesis. However, the risks of sunburn, damage to the skin, and skin cancer trump this. Children can get vitamin D through their diet, and some people also choose to take additional vitamin D supplementation.
What are the best remedies for a sunburn?
You can care for sunburns by applying cool compresses and aloe vera gel. Gentle moisturizers can be applied to intact skin. Ibuprofen may help to relieve discomfort and can be used for children older than 6 months.