When kids are outdoors, it's important to protect their skin to prevent melanoma
and skin damage from too much sun exposure.
Here's how to help kids enjoy fun in the sun safely.
Why Is Sun Protection Important?
We all need some sun exposure. When skin is exposed to the sun, our bodies make
vitamin D, which helps the
body absorb calcium for stronger,
healthier bones. It only
takes a little time in the sun for most people to get the vitamin D they need (and
most vitamin D needs should be met with a healthy diet and/or supplements).
Too much unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause skin
damage, eye damage, immune system
suppression, and skin cancer. Even people in their twenties can develop skin cancer.
How Do Sunburns Happen?
The sun radiates light to the earth, and part of that light consists of invisible
UV rays. When these rays reach the skin, they cause tanning, burning, and other skin
UVA rays cause skin aging and wrinkling and contribute to skin
cancer, such as melanoma (the
most dangerous form of skin cancer). UVA rays pass easily through the ozone layer,
so they make up the majority of our sun exposure.
UVB rays are also dangerous, causing sunburns, cataracts (clouding
of the eye lens), and effects on the immune system. They also contribute to skin cancer,
and melanoma is thought to be associated with severe UVB sunburns before age 20.
UV rays react with a chemical called melanin that's found in skin.
A sunburn develops when the amount of UV exposure is greater than what can be protected
against by the skin's melanin. The risk of damage increases with the amount and intensity
of exposure. A tan is itself a sign of skin damage and does not help protect the skin.
Who Needs Sun Protection?
Every child needs sun protection. The lighter someone's natural skin color, the
less melanin it has to absorb UV rays and protect itself. The darker a person's natural
skin color, the more melanin it has. But both dark- and light-skinned kids need protection
from UV rays because any tanning or burning causes skin damage.
Here are the key ways to protect kids' skin:
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that all kids — regardless
of their skin tone — wear sunscreen
with an SPF of 30 or higher. Whatever sunscreen you choose, make sure it's broad-spectrum
(protects against both UVA and UVB rays) and, if kids are in or near water, is labeled
water-resistant. Apply a generous amount and re-apply often.
Avoid the Strongest Rays of the Day
Try to stay in the shade when the sun is at its strongest (usually from 10 a.m.
to 4 p.m. in the northern hemisphere). If kids are in the sun during this time, apply
and reapply sunscreen — even if they're just playing in the backyard. Most sun
damage happens from exposure during day-to-day activities, not from being at the beach.
Remember that even on cloudy, cool, or overcast days, UV rays reach the earth. This
"invisible sun" can cause unexpected sunburn and skin damage.
One of the best ways to protect skin is to cover up. To make sure clothes offer
enough protection, put your hand inside garments to make sure you can't see it through
Babies have thinner skin and underdeveloped melanin, so their skin burns easily.
The best protection for babies under 6 months of age is shade, so they should be kept
out of the sun whenever possible. If your baby must be in the sun, dress him or her
in clothing that covers the body, including hats with wide brims to shadow the face.
If your baby is younger than 6 months old and still has small areas of skin (like
the face) exposed, you can use a tiny amount of SPF 15 sunscreen on those areas.
Even older kids need to escape the sun. For outdoor events, bring along a wide
umbrella or a pop-up tent to play in. If it's not too hot outside and won't make kids
even more uncomfortable, have them wear light long-sleeved shirts and/or long pants.
Sun exposure damages the eyes as well as the skin. Even 1 day in the sun can lead
to a burned cornea (the outer clear membrane layer of the eye). Sun exposure over
time can cause cataracts (clouding of the eye lens, which leads to blurred vision)
later in life. The best way to protect eyes is to wear sunglasses that provide 100%
Let kids pick their own pair — many options are fun, with multicolored frames
or cartoon characters.
Some medicines make skin more sensitive to UV rays. Ask your doctor or pharmacist
if any prescription (especially antibiotics and acne medicines) and over-the-counter
(OTC) medicines your kids take can increase sun sensitivity. If so, take extra sun
precautions. The best protection is simply covering up or staying indoors; even sunscreen
can't always protect skin from sun sensitivity.
What if My Child Gets a Sunburn?
When kids get sunburned, they usually have pain and a sensation of heat —
symptoms that tend to get worse several hours after sun exposure. Some also get chills.
Because the sun has dried their skin, it can become itchy and tight. Sunburned 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 at risk for infection.
To treat a sunburn:
Have your child take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses
to the skin to help ease pain and heat.
Apply pure aloe vera gel (available in most drugstores) to any sunburned areas.
Give your child an anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen or use acetaminophen
to ease the pain and itching. (Do not give aspirin to children or
teens.) Over-the-counter diphenhydramine also may help reduce itching and swelling.
Apply moisturizing cream to rehydrate the skin and treat itching. For the more
seriously sunburned areas in kids over 2 years old, apply a thin layer of 1% hydrocortisone
cream to help with pain. (Do not 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 allergy.)
If the sunburn is severe and blisters develop, call your doctor. Tell your child
not to scratch, pop, or squeeze the blisters, which can get infected and cause scarring.
Keep your child out of the sun until the sunburn is healed. Any further sun exposure
will only make the burn worse and increase pain.
What Else Should I Know?
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. If you travel
to a foreign country during its summer season, pack or buy the strongest sun protection
you can find.
Extra protection is also a must near the equator, where the sun is strongest, and
at high altitudes, where the air and cloud cover are thinner. 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 risk of sunburn.
And be a good role model by always using sunscreen, wearing sunglasses, and limiting
your time in the sun. You'll reduce your risk of sun damage and teach your kids good