It’s long been known that excessive childhood sun exposure and sunburns are significant risk factors for developing skin cancer and premature aging (such as sun spots and wrinkles) later in life. Children have thin, delicate skin and are more susceptible to sunburns than adults. Prevention and moderation are the keys to protecting your kids, and there are plenty of ways to shield them from the harmful rays.
Prevention and coverage
The best protection from the sun is limiting direct exposure during the peak-intensity hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This is also the time your kids will likely want to be out and about on a beautiful summer day, and you don’t want to discourage them from active outdoor play. You just need to be prepared. Apply sunscreen, of course, to any exposed skin, but also have your child wear sun-protective clothing. Look for clothing rated with an ultraviolet protective factor (UPF) of at least 30, which will block the most harmful rays. Encourage your child to wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Seek shade often, bring an umbrella to the beach and be extra careful around water and sand (and snow), which are known to reflect ultraviolet rays and increase the risk of burning. And you need protection even on cloudy days: UV rays can penetrate clouds, and kids are often more vulnerable then because they are able to stay out longer without feeling the effects of the sun.
Take a trip to your local drugstore and you will find no fewer than 50 kinds of sun-blocking lotions, sprays, creams, sticks and whips (yes, that’s a thing now). But choosing one doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are some things to consider.
- Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB light. Both types of rays can lead to skin cancer.
- Don’t be fooled by the higher-number SPFs (sun protection factors). Aim for something with an SPF of 30 or above, but be wary of anything boasting a number higher than 50. The difference between an SPF 30 and SPF 100 is minuscule, and using a higher-SPF product may give you a false sense of security.
- Choose a sunscreen with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, which are physical, or mineral, blocks. These are safer for skin than chemical-based sunscreens because they are more hypoallergenic, and they won’t sting a child’s eyes. Avoid sunscreens with Vitamin A (also known as retinyl or retinol), oxybenzone, dyes, fragrances, parabens and other preservatives that may be unhealthy or could irritate young skin.
- Apply sunscreen generously to any exposed skin 15 to 30 minutes before going outside. Don’t skimp. Slather it generously all over, and don’t forget the back of the neck, tops of the feet, the ears and scalp.
- Reapply often — at least every two hours, or sooner if your child has been swimming or sweating. There is no such thing as a waterproof or sweat-proof sunscreen; they all need to be reapplied frequently (every 40 to 80 minutes) when a child is in the water. Follow the directions on the label.
- Don’t reserve sunscreen for days at the pool or on the soccer field. Make it a daily habit, applying it to your child’s skin in the morning after they brush their teeth or before they leave for school. Teach them how to reapply so you know they are protected even if they are away at school or day camp.
- Be careful with spray sunscreens. Yes, they are convenient and some kids love them, but they can be dangerous if inhaled. If you go this route, spray them outdoors, have your child hold their breath while you are applying it and never spray it near their face. You may need to spray multiple times for even distribution.
Ways to get the kids on board
Buy-in and cooperation are everything. If your child is resisting your efforts to protect them from the sun, here are some tricks to make it easier.
- Make sunscreen part of the routine or requirements. Tell the child that any time you are going outside, you have to apply sunscreen and put on a hat as well as shoes. Or that when you’re going swimming, you have to wear sunscreen and a bathing suit.
- Be a good role model. Make sure you are also wearing a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, UPF clothing and sunscreen when you go outside, to show your child that it’s important, and normal.
- Increase buy-in by having the child help pick out their sunscreen. Give a few options, asking if they want to use cream or a stick on their face. Also ask whether they want you to apply it to their legs or arms first. Kids like to feel like they are in control, and that makes them more likely to cooperate with tedious tasks.
- Set a timer or an alarm for reapplying sunscreen every hour or two. Give children advance warning, and make it fun by announcing “In five minutes we are all going to freeze for a sunscreen and water break. After that we’ll go back to acting crazy and having fun.”
- Try giving sun-protective clothing items a special name to make things more fun. Say “Everyone wears a zookeeper hat when we go to the zoo” (or park ranger for the park/playground, etc.) or “We’re going to the pool, it’s time to put on our robot sunglasses.”
Sun protection for babies
It’s best to keep babies, especially those under 6 months, out of direct sunlight. But the American Academy of Pediatrics says it’s okay to use a small amount of sunscreen on your baby if you are unable to find shade. Be sure to test the sunscreen on a small area of the baby’s skin first, to ensure they don’t develop a rash.
Treating a sunburn
Prevention is best. But if your child does get a sunburn, cool compresses, pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen and aloe vera can help soothe burned skin. Call your pediatrician if your child gets a blistering sunburn, a burn that covers a large area of their body, or if they develop a fever, chills or dehydration with a burn.
Tanya Altmann is the founder of Calabasas Pediatrics, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, author of “Baby and Toddler Basics: Experts Answers to Parents’ Top 150 Questions,” and mom of three.
Tiffany Fischman is a pediatrician for the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a clinical instructor of Pediatrics for Harvard Medical School and a mom of two.
Follow On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, news and updates, and join our discussion group here to talk about parenting and balancing a career. You can sign up here for our weekly newsletter.