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. Even people in their
twenties can develop skin cancer.
Most kids rack up between 50% and 80% of their lifetime sun
exposure before age 18, 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.
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
the skin, they cause tanning, burning, and other skin damage.
Sunlight contains three types of ultraviolet rays: UVA, UVB, and
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 atmosphere, or
shield, surrounding the earth), they make up the majority of our
sun exposure. Beware of tanning beds because they use UVA rays. A
UVA tan does
help protect the skin from further sun damage; it merely produces
color and a false sense of protection from the sun.
rays are also dangerous, causing sunburns, cataracts (clouding of
the eye lens), and immune system damage. They also contribute 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
rays are the most dangerous, but fortunately, these rays are
blocked by the ozone layer and don't reach the earth.
What's important is to protect your family from exposure to
UVA and UVB, the rays that cause skin damage.
Melanin: The Body's First Line of Defense
UV rays react with a chemical called melanin that's found in
most people's skin. Melanin is the first defense against the
sun because it absorbs dangerous UV rays before they do serious
skin damage. Melanin is found in different concentrations and
colors, resulting in different skin colors. The lighter a
person's natural skin color, the less melanin it has to absorb
UV and protect itself. The darker a person's natural skin
color, the more melanin it has to protect itself. (But both dark-
light-skinned kids need protection from UV rays because
tanning or burning causes skin damage.)
Also, anyone with a fair complexion - lighter skin and eye color
- is more likely to have freckles because there's less melanin
in the skin. Although freckles are harmless, being outside in the
sun may help cause them or make them darker.
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.
Unprotected sun exposure is even more dangerous for kids
- moles on their skin (or whose parents have a tendency to
- very fair skin and hair
- a family history of skin cancer, including melanoma
You should be especially careful about sun protection if your
child has one or more of these high-risk characteristics.
Also, 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
With the right precautions, kids can safely play in the sun.
Here are the most effective strategies:
Avoid the Strongest Rays of the Day
First, avoid being in the sun for prolonged times when it's
highest overhead and therefore the strongest (normally from 10:00
AM until 4:00 PM in the northern hemisphere). If kids are in the
sun between these hours, be sure to apply protective sunscreen -
even if they're 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're developing a sunburn on cooler or windy days because
the temperature or breeze keeps skin feeling cool on the
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 garments
and making sure you can't see it through them.
Because infants have thinner skin and underdeveloped melanin,
their skin burns more easily than that of older kids. But sunscreen
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
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 wide umbrella or a pop-up tent to play in. If it's not
too hot outside and won't make your child even more
uncomfortable, you can have him or her wear a light long-sleeved
shirt and/or long pants. 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.
Use Sunscreen Consistently
Lots of good sunscreens are 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 drugstores, concentrate on the SPF (sun
protection factor) numbers on the labels.
For kids age 6 months and older, select an SPF of 15 or higher
to prevent both sunburn
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).
For sunscreen to do its job, it must be applied correctly. Be
- Apply sunscreen whenever your child will be in the sun.
- Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before kids go outside so
that a good layer of protection can form. Don't forget about
lips, hands, ears, feet, shoulders, and behind the neck. Lift up
bathing suit straps and apply sunscreen underneath them (in case
the straps shift as a child moves).
- Don't try to stretch out a bottle of sunscreen; apply it
- Reapply sunscreen often, approximately every 2 to 3 hours, as
recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. Reapply after
a child is sweating or swimming.
- Apply a waterproof sunscreen if kids will be around water or
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. But regardless of the waterproof label, be sure to
reapply sunscreen when kids come out of the water.
Keep in mind that every child needs extra sun protection. The
American Academy of Dermatology recommends that all children -
regardless of their skin tone - wear sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or
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
Use Protective Eyewear for Kids
Sun exposure damages the eyes as well as the skin. Even 1 day in
the sun can result in a burned cornea (the outermost, clear
membrane layer of the eye). Cumulative exposure can lead to
cataracts later in life (clouding of the eye lens, which results in
blindness). The best way to protect 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 the eyes into a false sense of safety. Purchase
sunglasses with labels ensuring that they provide 100% UV
But not all kids enjoy wearing sunglasses, especially the first
few times. To encourage them to wear them, let kids select a style
they like - many manufacturers make fun, multicolored frames or
ones 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.
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 kids, of course, are even more
Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any prescription (especially
antibiotics and acne medications) 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.
If Your Child Gets a Sunburn
A sunburn can sneak up on kids, especially after a long day at
the beach or park. Often, they seem fine during the day but then
gradually develop an "after-burn" later that evening that
can be painful and hot and even make them feel sick.
When kids get sunburned, they usually experience pain and a
sensation of heat - symptoms that tend to become more severe
several hours after sun exposure. Some also develop chills. Because
the sun has dried their skin, it can become itchy and tight. Burned
skin 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.
If your child does get a sunburn, these tips may help:
- Keep your child in the shade until the sunburn is healed. Any
additional sun exposure will only increase the severity of the
burn and increase pain.
- Have your child take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply
cool, wet compresses to the skin to help alleviate pain and
- Apply pure aloe vera gel (available in most pharmacies or
taken directly from within the leaves of the plant) to any
sunburned areas. It's excellent for relieving sunburn pain
and helping skin heal quicker.
- Give your child a pain reliever like acetaminophen or
ibuprofen and spray on over-the-counter "after-sun"
pain relievers. (Do
, however, give
to children or teens.)
- Apply topical moisturizing cream to rehydrate the skin and
help reduce swelling. For the most severely burned areas, apply a
thin layer of 1% hydrocortisone cream. (Do
use petroleum-based products, because they prevent excess heat
and sweat from escaping. Also, avoid first-aid products that
contain benzocaine, which may cause skin irritation or
If the sunburn is
and blisters develop, call your doctor. Until you can see your
doctor, tell your child not to scratch, pop, or squeeze the
blisters, which can become easily infected and can result in
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 overheated and dehydrated, and in many
cases, are accompanied by sunburn.
Call the doctor if:
- your child has an unexplained
higher than 102Âº Fahrenheit (38.9Âº Celsius)
- the sunburned skin looks infected
- your child has trouble looking at light (this may indicate a
sunburn of the eye's cornea)
Contact your doctor for immediate assistance if your child
- delirium (seems temporarily mentally confused)
Be Sun Safe Yourself
Being a good role model by wearing sunscreen and limiting your
time in the sun not only reduces your risk of sun damage, but
teaches your kids good sun sense.
Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: September 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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