We all need some sun exposure; it’s our primary source of vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones. But it doesn’t take much time in the sun for most people to get the vitamin D they need, and unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause skin damage, eye damage, immune system suppression, and even cancer.
Children rack up around 40–50% of their total UV to age 60 before the age of 20 (source), so it’s important that parents teach their children how to enjoy fun in the sun safely. With the right precautions, you can greatly reduce your child’s chance of developing skin cancer later on.
Facts About Sun Exposure
The sun radiates light to the earth, and part of that light consists of invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays. When these rays reach our skin, they cause tanning, burning, and other skin damage. There are three kinds of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. What’s important is to protect your family from exposure to UVA and UVB, the rays that cause skin damage.
UV rays react with a chemical called melanin that’s found in most people’s skin. Melanin is your first defense against the sun. It absorbs dangerous UV rays before they do serious skin cell damage (source). Melanin is found in different concentrations and colors; the darker your skin color, the more melanin your skin has to protect itself. As the melanin increases in response to sun exposure, the skin tans. But even that “healthy” tan may be a sign of sun damage. The risk of damage increases with the amount and intensity of exposure. Those who are chronically exposed to the sun, such as farmers, boaters, and sunbathers, are at much greater risk.
A sunburn develops when the amount of UV exposure is greater than what can be protected against by the skin’s melanin. The lighter your child’s skin, the less melanin it has to absorb UV and protect itself. And all skin, no matter what color, responds to continued sun exposure by thickening and hardening, resulting in leathery skin and wrinkles later in life.
Unprotected sun exposure is even more dangerous for kids with moles on their skin (or whose parents have a tendency to develop moles), very fair skin and hair, or a family history of skin cancer, including melanoma. You should be especially diligent about sun protection if your child has one or more of these high-risk characteristics, however, it’s dangerous for all children.
According to this 2011 Pub Med report, there is indicative epidemiological evidence that exposures of children younger than about 10 years are linked with an increased risk of the development of malignant melanoma as well as non-melanocytic skin cancers later in life.
Where/When the Sun is Strongest
Not all sunlight is “equal” in UV concentration. The intensity of the sun’s rays depends upon the time of year, as well as the altitude and latitude of your location.
UV rays are strongest during summer. Remember that the timing of this season varies by location; if you travel to a foreign country during its summer season, you’ll need to pack the strongest sun protection you can find.
Extra protection is also required near the equator, where the sun is strongest, and at high altitudes, where the air and cloud cover are thinner, allowing more damaging UV rays to get through the atmosphere. Even during winter months, if your family goes skiing in the mountains, be sure to apply plenty of sunscreen; UV rays reflect off both snow and water, increasing the probability of sunburn.
How to Protect Your Child From the Sun
With the right precautions, children can safely play in the sun. Here’s the lowdown on the most effective strategies:
1) Avoid the Strongest Rays of the Day
First, avoid being in the sun for prolonged times when it is highest overhead and therefore the strongest (normally from 10:00 AM until 3:00 PM in the northern hemisphere). If your child is in the sun between these hours, be sure to apply protective sunscreen – even if he’s just playing in the backyard. Most sun damage occurs as a result of incidental exposure during day-to-day activities, not at the beach.
Even on cloudy, cool, or overcast days, UV rays travel through the clouds and reflect off sand, water, and even concrete. Clouds and pollution don’t filter out UV rays, and they can give a false sense of protection. This “invisible sun” can cause unexpected sunburn and skin damage. Often, kids are unaware that they are developing a sunburn on cooler or windy days because the temperature or breeze keeps skin feeling cool on the surface.
2) Cover Them Up
One of the best ways to protect your family from the sun is to cover up and shield skin from UV rays. Ensure that clothes will screen out harmful UV rays by placing your hand inside the garment and making sure you can’t see your hand through it.
Because infants have thinner skin and underdeveloped melanin, their skin burns more easily than that of older kids. But as the FDA advises, sunscreen should not be applied to babies under 6 months of age, so they absolutely must be kept out of the sun whenever possible. If your infant must be in the sun, dress him or her in clothing that covers the body, including hats with wide brims to shadow the face. Use an umbrella or tree cover to create shade.
Even older kids need to escape the sun. Long exposure can make them feel tired and irritable. For all-day outdoor affairs, bring along a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, a full-length robe, a wide umbrella, or a pop-up tent to play in. Before heading to the beach or park, call ahead to find out if certain areas offer rentals of umbrellas, tents, and other sun-protective gear.
3) Use Sunscreen Consistently
There are lots of good sunscreens available for kids, including formulations for sensitive skin, brands with fun scents like watermelon, long-lasting waterproof and sweat-proof versions, and easy-application varieties in spray bottles.
What matters most in a sunscreen is the degree of protection from UV rays it provides. When faced with the overwhelming sea of sunscreen choices at drug stores, concentrate on the SPF (Sun Protection Factor) numbers on the labels.
The SPF number tells you how much longer you can stay in the sun without burning if you apply the sunscreen, which acts as a “block” to the sun’s rays (hence the term “sun block”). For example, if your child would burn after 20 minutes of sun exposure, applying a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 gives him 30 times the protection. In this example, the child will be protected for up to 10 hours (though sunscreens often say it’s good for 8 hours to be on the safe side).
20 minutes x 30 SPF = 600 minutes (10 hours)
For kids aged 6 months and older, select an SPF of 30 or higher to prevent both sunburn and tanning. Choose a sunscreen that states on the label that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays (referred to as “broad-spectrum” sunscreen). To avoid possible skin allergy, avoid sunscreens with PABA, and if your child has sensitive skin, look for a product with the active ingredient titanium dioxide (a chemical-free block).
Also, avoid using sunscreens with Deet insect repellent when protecting your child from mosquitos and the sun. Products combining DEET and sunscreen are not considered safe. The APA explains this is because sunscreen usually should be reapplied more often than insect repellent (source). Always use two separate products.
In order for sunscreen to do its job, it must be applied correctly. Be sure to:
- Use sunscreen whenever your child will be in the sun.
- Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before going outside so that a good layer of protection can form. Don’t forget about lips, hands, ears, feet, behind the neck and shoulders. Lift up bathing suit straps and apply sunscreen underneath them (in case the straps shift from body movement).
- Don’t try to stretch out a bottle of sunscreen; as a guide, apply the sunscreen generously.
- Reapply sunscreen often, approximately every 2 hours. Reapply after your child is sweating or swimming.
- Apply waterproof sunscreen if your child will be around water or will go swimming. Water reflects and intensifies the sun’s rays, so kids need protection that lasts. Waterproof sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water, and some are also sweat- and rub-proof.
- Keep in mind that every child needs extra sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that all children wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 of higher. Although dark skin has more protective melanin and tans more easily than it burns, remember that tanning is also a sign of sun damage. Dark-skinned children can also develop painful sunburns.
4) Purchase Protective Eyewear for Your Children
Sun exposure damages the eyes as well as the skin. Even one day in the powerful sun can result in a burned cornea (the outermost, clear membrane layer of the eye). Cumulative exposure can lead to cataracts (clouding of the eye lens, which results in blindness). The best way to protect your little one’s eyes is to wear sunglasses.
Not all sunglasses provide the same level of ultraviolet protection; darkened plastic or glass lenses without special UV filters just trick eyes into a false sense of safety. Purchase sunglasses with labels ensuring that they provide 100% UV protection.
Not all children enjoy wearing sunglasses, especially the first few times. To encourage kids, let them select a style they particularly like; many manufacturers make fun, multi-colored glass frames or frames embossed with cartoon characters. And don’t forget that kids want to be like grown-ups. If you wear sunglasses regularly, your kids may be willing to follow your example.
5) Ask Your Pediatrician and/or Pharmacist About Your Child’s Medication
Some medications increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV rays. As a result, even kids with skin that tends not to burn easily can develop a severe sunburn in just minutes when taking certain medications. Fair-skinned children, of course, are even more vulnerable.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist if the prescription and over-the-counter medications your child is taking can increase sun sensitivity. If so, always take extra sun precautions. The best protection is simply covering up or staying indoors; even sunscreen can’t always protect skin from sun sensitivity caused by medications.
What to Do if Your Child Gets a Sunburn
A sunburn can sneak up on your child, especially after a long day at the beach or park. Often, kids seem fine during the day but then gradually develop an “afterburn” that can be painful and hot and can even make them feel sick. The best way to take care of your child is to treat the symptoms and prevent further problems.
When children get sunburned, they usually experience pain and a sensation of heat, symptoms that tend to become more severe several hours after sun exposure. Some children also develop chills. Because the sun has dried their skin, it can become itchy and tight. Burned skin typically begins to peel about a week after the sunburn. Encourage your child not to scratch or peel off loose skin because skin underneath the sunburn is vulnerable to infection. The following tips will help you keep your child comfortable if he has a sunburn.
- To help alleviate pain and heat, have your child take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses to the skin.
- You can also give your child a pain reliever such as acetaminophen (like Tylenol) or ibuprofen (like Motrin) and spray on over-the-counter “after-sun” pain relievers. (Do not give aspirin to children or teens.)
- To rehydrate the skin and help reduce swelling, apply topical moisturizing cream or 1% hydrocortisone cream.
- Do not use petroleum-based products because they prevent excess heat and sweat from escaping.
- Avoid first-aid products that contain benzocaine, which may cause skin irritation or allergy.
- If your child has a sunburn, keep him in the shade until it’s healed. Any additional sun exposure will only increase the severity of the burn and increase pain.
If the sunburn is severe and blisters develop, call your doctor immediately. Until you can see your child’s doctor, tell your child not to scratch, pop, or squeeze the blisters, which can become easily infected and result in scarring.
Heat-related illnesses such as heat syncope (fainting from heat), heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are far more serious than a sunburn.
These conditions occur when kids become very overheated and dehydrated, and in many cases, they are accompanied by sunburn. Contact your child’s doctor if your child has an unexplained fever higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit or 38.9 degrees Celsius, the skin looks infected, or he has trouble looking at light. (This may indicate a sunburn of the eye’s cornea.) If your child has nausea, vomiting, fainting, delirium, or diarrhea, contact your child’s doctor for immediate assistance.
More Sun Information
Ultraviolet (UV) Rays
Sunlight contains three types of ultraviolet rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC.
- UVA rays cause skin aging and wrinkling and contribute to skin cancer, such as melanoma. Because UVA rays pass effortlessly through the ozone layer (the protective layer of the atmosphere, or shield, surrounding the earth), they make up the majority of our sun exposure. Beware of tanning beds because they use UVA rays to generate tanning. A UVA tan does not help protect the skin from further sun damage; it merely produces color and a false sense of protection from the sun.
- UVB rays are also dangerous, causing sunburns, cataracts (clouding of the eye lens), immune system damage, and contributing to skin cancer. Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is thought to be associated with severe UVB sunburns that occur before the age of 20. Most UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, but enough of these rays pass through to cause serious damage.
- UVC rays are the most dangerous, but fortunately, these rays are blocked by the ozone layer and don’t reach the earth.
Melanin is the protective chemical in the skin that absorbs UV rays and causes tanning. It is found in a variety of colors and concentrations, resulting in different skin colors. Both darker- and lighter-skinned children need protection from UV rays because any tanning or burning causes skin damage. All children should always wear sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30.
Green, A. C., Wallingford, S. C., & McBride, P. (2011). Childhood exposure to ultraviolet radiation and harmful skin effects: epidemiological evidence. Progress in biophysics and molecular biology, 107(3), 349–355. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2011.08.010
Melanin. (2022, March 29). HealthLink BC. Retrieved October 11 from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22615-melanin
Repellents Part of Arsenal in War Against Insects. (2013, June). AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) News. Volume 24, Number 6. Retrieved May 15 from: https://www.aappublications.org/content/34/6/16.1
Should You Put Sunscreen on Infants? Not Usually. (2021). Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Retrieved October 11 from: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/should-you-put-sunscreen-infants-not-usually
Sunscreen FAQs. (2022). American Academy of Dermatology Association. Retrieved October 11 from: https://www.aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/shade-clothing-sunscreen/sunscreen-faqs
Volkmer, B., & Greinert, R. (2011). UV and children’s skin. Progress in biophysics and molecular biology, 107(3), 386–388. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2011.08.011