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Sun Safety

Protect your child from harmful amounts of sun with strong sunscreen.

Protecting your child's skin from the harmful rays of the sun should be a priority all year long, but parents need to be especially careful in the summer. Skin damage in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood is a key factor in the development of skin cancer. Pediatric dermatologist Judith Williams, MD, offers these tips on protecting your child's skin.

Sun Safety for Babies

Wearing appropriate clothing and avoiding direct sunlight are the best methods for protecting infants from sunburn and overheating. Other helpful hints include:

  • Stay in shady areas when possible and avoid sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun is most intense.
  • Protect your baby's skin with lightweight clothing, sun umbrellas and the hoods that come on most strollers.
  • Eye protection (broad-brimmed hats and sunglasses) is recommended for infants.
  • Sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide appear to be safe to use on infants when adequate clothing and shade are not available.

Sun Safety for Children 6 months or Older

Children older than 6 months should wear sunscreen whenever they are going to be outdoors.

  • The sun's harmful rays can pass through clouds, so use sunscreen even on overcast days.
  • A hat with a 3-inch brim will provide additional protection.
  • Older children should also wear sunglasses; look for glasses that provide 99-100 percent UVA and UVB protection.

Sun Safety for Teens

American pop culture seems to equate tanned skin with health and beauty, inspiring many teens to sunbathe and visit tanning salons. But whether the tan comes from a salon or the sun, a tan is a sign of skin damage.

  • Chronic exposure to ultraviolet light causes premature aging of the skin, including wrinkles and skin discoloration, and increases the risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Just one 15- to 30-minute session of exposure to the ultraviolet radiation in a tanning booth is equivalent to a day at the beach in the summer sun, says the American Academy of Dermatology.
  • Self-tanning lotions are a good alternative to the unsafe tan you get in a salon or from the sun. Self-tanning lotions are safe because the change in skin color comes from a harmless chemical, not UV rays. The change in skin color does not protect against UV rays, so a sunscreen is still necessary if you are going outdoors.

Sunscreen Basics

Choosing a Sunscreen

Sunscreens are available in a range of sun protection factors (SPF) that filter the ultraviolet rays to the skin.

  • A product with an SPF of at least 15 is recommended for most people, but we recommend an SPF of 50 for children.
  • Chemical-free sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide formulas are usually gentler on young skin.
  • Make sure the product provides both UVA and UVB protection. Currently, these include the products containing the physical blockers (titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) or a chemical called avobenzone (Parsol).
  • Don't lower your SPF as your child gets a tan. A tan does not protect against additional sun damage; it is simply a sign that damage has already occurred.

Applying Sunscreen

Sunscreens work much better when applied properly. Here are some tips:

  • Apply the sunscreen 20 minutes before your child goes outside.
  • Use an ample amount -- about a palm full for a school-aged child -- and make sure you cover all exposed areas, including nose, lips ears, necks, cheeks and shoulders.
  • Let it dry and apply another coat.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours or earlier after swimming or perspiring heavily. Sunscreens in a stick form tend to stay on longer in water.

Treating a Sunburn

If your child gets a mild sunburn, do not apply ointments, petroleum jelly, butter or sprays.

  • Children's ibuprofen started early can reduce the discomfort.
  • Non-prescription 1% hydrocortisone cream or moisturizing creams applied two or three times a day may reduce swelling.
  • Cool baths also may help.
  • Your child should drink extra water or other liquids such as sports drinks (not sodas) to prevent dehydration and dizziness.
  • Sunburns with blisters are second-degree burns and require a pediatrician's attention.

The Sun and Skin Cancer

Skin damage in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood is a key factor in the development of skin cancer.

  • Most non-melanoma skin cancers (the most common cancer in America) can be attributed to unprotected sun exposure -- specifically ultraviolet or "UV-A" and "UV-B" rays.
  • Bulbs at tanning salons emit ultraviolet-A rays.
  • The deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma, killed about 7,800 people in the United States last year, and that number is expected to rise this year.
  • Melanoma often strikes people with fair skin who have had blistering sunburns, particularly in childhood and adolescence.

Be especially careful about your child's sun exposure if he or she has any of the following risk factors:

  • fair skin
  • red or blond hair
  • light-colored eyes
  • skin that burns easily
  • many moles or freckles
  • a family history of skin cancer

Other risk factors for skin cancer include:

  • growing up in a sunny climate
  • having had a sunburn that blistered
  • tanning in the sun or in a tanning bed
  • working and playing outside without appropriate sun protection
Important: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.