Fun in the sun is part of childhood. However, without protection from the sun’s harmful rays, sunburns can be painful, leading to lifelong skin damage and increased skin cancer risk. Read on to learn how to protect your child’s skin and teach them lifelong sun-safety habits.
Damage to the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays in childhood can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer later in life.
Sunscreen should be part of year-round daily sun protection. Proper application of sunscreen is necessary to reap its benefits.
Protecting babies and children from direct sun exposure can protect their skin from sun damage. Seeking shade and wearing hats and sunglasses are good habits for children to learn.
You can safely treat your child’s sunburn at home, but seek medical attention for bad, blistering burns or if a young baby gets burned.
The importance of sun safety
Did you know that protecting your child from sunburns can protect them from developing skin cancer later in life? Unfortunately, skin cancer remains the most common cancer in the United States. The most serious form of skin cancer is melanoma, and it can be life-threatening. Research tells us that every blister-causing sunburn in childhood raises the risk of melanoma later in life.
Damage from the sun comes from the radiation or energy that reaches the earth in the form of ultraviolet rays. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays are associated with skin aging. They penetrate clouds and are present even on cloudy days. Ultraviolet B (UVB) is associated with sunburns and is most intense late morning to mid-afternoon. UVB rays are even stronger in tropical climates and at high altitudes. UVA and UVB can be present year-round, and skin protection should not only be a summertime consideration.
So how do we protect our kids from UVA and UVB rays? A combination of limiting sun exposure and using sunscreen is best. Let’s look at both in more detail.
Sunscreens fall into two categories: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens are rubbed into the skin and absorb the sun’s rays before they can damage the skin. Physical sunscreens, commonly called sunblock, deflect the sun’s rays before they penetrate the skin. There are pros and cons to each, and you should choose carefully to find a product that suits your needs and provides protection from UVA and UVB rays.
For both chemical and physical sunscreens, follow these tips to ensure optimal sun protection for your baby or child:
- Apply before sun exposure. Apply to your child's dry skin at least 15 minutes before sun exposure. Chemical sunscreens need time to absorb into the skin.
- Protect sensitive skin. A mineral sunscreen or sunblock may be less irritating than chemical sunscreen for a baby's sensitive skin. Choose a sunscreen labeled for children, as they may contain less irritating ingredients.
- Avoid the eyes. Take care when applying sunscreen on your child's face, and teach them not to rub their eyes when wearing sunscreen. If sunscreen does get in your child's eye, wipe gently with a clean, damp cloth;.
- Grown-ups required. A parent or caregiver should apply sunscreen to a child until they are old enough to apply it properly without missing any exposed skin.
- Don't forget those tricky areas. Babies and children often play in crouching and other unique positions, causing their clothing to shift. Apply sunscreen to their stomach, lower backs, and other areas that may be exposed during rambunctious play.
- Use caution with sprays. Young children cannot coordinate holding their breath during the application and may inhale the vapors of aerosol sprays. If you choose a spray-type sunscreen, use it only in well-ventilated areas, be aware of wind direction, and never spray the face.
- Good habits for all ages. Help your children develop habits for lifelong sun protection, such as reapplying sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming, and using a lip balm that contains sunscreen.
- Check product labels. Ensure a minimum SPF of 30, and check expiration dates. Discard products that have expired.
Other ways to protect babies and kids from the sun
Sunscreens are important year-round but are not the only way to protect your skin. Keeping your skin from direct sunlight is also important, especially for babies too young for sunscreen.
Teach your children to incorporate these five sun-protection tips into their daily habits:
- Seek shade. When possible, children should play in the shade. Umbrellas can be a great source of portable shade. Just remember that sand can reflect the sun’s rays in an upward direction, so umbrellas do not provide complete protection.
- Wear hats. Choose hats with broad brims that protect the face and the back of the neck.
- Choose clothing that covers more skin. If possible, wear clothing with long pants and sleeves. Tighter weaves of fabric, such as cotton, offer more protection. You can also find clothing designed to block UV rays.
- Wear sunglasses. Don’t forget to protect your eyes from sun damage. Choose sunglasses with at least 99% UV protection.
- Avoid peak sun. UV radiation is strongest in the middle of the day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Choose shady or indoor activities during these hours.
What to do if the child has a sunburn
If your child gets a sunburn, there are ways to provide comfort. Try giving your child a cool bath and use moisturizer to relieve dryness. Make sure your child drinks extra water to stay hydrated. Keep your child out of the sun until the sunburn heals.
Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about using ibuprofen or a topical steroid cream to relieve swelling and discomfort. Acetaminophen is a safe choice for pain, even in babies. Follow package directions or talk to your baby’s doctor.
If your baby is younger than six months and gets a sunburn, it is a good idea to check in with your healthcare provider. Additionally, if your baby or child has a sunburn that forms blisters, ask your healthcare provider for further guidance.
Can I put sunscreen on my baby?
According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, parents should avoid sunscreen for babies younger than six months. However, if sun exposure is unavoidable, the AAP advises you can apply a small amount of sunscreen to areas of the skin not covered by clothing. Keeping young babies out of harmful sun rays is best.
Can my baby get a sunburn in the shade?
Yes. Because surfaces such as sand reflect the sun’s rays, sunburn is possible even in the shade. Water also reflects the sun’s rays, so flotation toys and devices with umbrellas are not enough sun protection for babies and children.
- American Academy of Dermatology Association. Sunscreen FAQs.
- American Academy of Dermatology Association. Infant Sun Protection: How Parents Can Keep Their Babies Safe.
- CDC. Sun Safety.
- AAP. Sunburn Treatment and Prevention.