Most kids rack up a lot 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.
Follow these simple rules to protect your family from sunburns now and from skin cancer later in life:
- Keep babies younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight. Find shade under a tree, umbrella, or the stroller canopy.
- When possible, dress yourself and your kids in cool, comfortable clothing that covers the body, like lightweight cotton pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hats.
- Select clothes made with a tight weave – they protect better than clothes with a looser weave. If you’re not sure how tight a fabric’s weave is, hold it up to see how much light shines through. The less light, the better. Clothing with built-in sun protection is becoming more available as well. Look for labels with UPF 50+.
- Wear a hat with a broad brim (3+ inches) that goes all the way around the crown of the head, if possible. A cap with a brim that faces forward also provides some minor shielding of the upper face.
- Limit your sun exposure between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., when UV rays are strongest.
- Wear sunglasses with at least 99 percent UV protection (look for child-sized sunglasses with UV protection for your child).
- Use sunscreen.
Sunscreen can help protect the skin from sunburn and some skin cancers, but only if it is used correctly. Keep in mind that sunscreen should be used for sun protection, not as a reason to stay in the sun longer.
- Use a sunscreen that says “broad-spectrum” on the label. That means it will screen out both UVB and UVA rays – or, use sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
- Use a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. The higher the SPF, the more UVB protection the sunscreen has. It is a myth that sunscreen higher than SPF 15 does not provide extra protection. The number SPF you actually get largely has to do with how it is applied. See tips on application below.
- For babies younger than 6 months: Use sunscreen on only small areas of the body, such as the face, if protective clothing and shade are not available.
- For babies older than 6 months: Apply to all exposed areas of the body, but be careful around the eyes. If your baby rubs sunscreen into her eyes, wipe the eyes and hands clean with a damp cloth. If the sunscreen irritates her skin, try a different brand or try a sunscreen stick or sunscreen or sunblock with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. If a rash develops, speak with your child’s doctor.
- Avoid tanning beds. There is no such thing as a “safe” tan, unless it is from a self tanning lotion or spray (be careful not to inhale the spray though!). A tan is a sign that the skin has been damaged by the sun.
The most important part is to use sunscreen regularly and to use enough.
- Use enough sunscreen to cover all exposed areas, especially the face, nose, ears, feet, and hands and even the backs of the knees. Rub it in well. Sunscreen has to be applied thickly enough to attain the number on the bottle. Most of us apply it too thinly. A good rule of thumb is an entire shot glass full, or 1 oz, for an adult’s body.
- Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors to give time for the sunscreen to bind and absorb into to the top layers of the skin.
- Use sunscreen any time you or your child might sunburn. Remember that you can get sunburn even on cloudy days. Also, UV rays can bounce back from water, sand, snow, and concrete so make sure you’re protected.
- Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, or after swimming or sweating. Sunscreen wears off after swimming, sweating, or just from soaking into the skin. Certain chemical sunscreens also lose effectiveness, especially against UVA rays, after being exposed to the sun. This is another reason it is crucial to reapply throughout the day.
- Store sunscreen in a cool, dry and dark place. Sunscreens can break down and lose effectiveness if stored in a hot car, bathroom, etc.
Finally, it is essential to set a good example. You can be the best teacher by practicing sun protection yourself. Teach all members of your family how to protect their skin and eyes.
Now have a wonderful, active summer!
Stanley Weinberger, MD, is a pediatrician at University Pediatrics at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.
Christine Weinberger, MD, is a Mohs surgeon and dermatologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.