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When kids are outdoors, it's important to protect their skin from too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UV rays), which can lead to skin cancer, skin damage and aging, and eye injury. 

How Do Sunburns Happen?

UV rays react with a chemical called melanin (MEL-eh-nun) in the skin. The lighter a child's natural skin color, the less melanin it has to absorb UV rays and protect itself. Kids with darker skin have more melanin. But regardless of their skin tone, all kids need protection from UV rays because any tanning or burning causes skin damage.

A sunburn happens when the amount of UV exposure is greater than the protection of the skin's melanin. The longer someone stays in the sun and the stronger the sunlight is, the greater the risk of damage. A tan is itself a sign of skin damage and does not help protect the skin.

Sunburn Instruction Sheet

How Can I Protect My Child's Skin?

Use Sunscreen

Experts recommend that all kids — no matter 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 during day-to-day activities because it's easy to overlook using sunscreen then. Remember that even on cloudy, cool, or overcast days, UV rays reach the earth. This "invisible sun" can cause unexpected sunburn and skin damage.

Cover Up

One of the best ways to protect skin is to cover up. To see if they offer enough protection, put your hand inside clothes to make sure you can't see it through them. Some clothes have an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) against the sun, so check the labels.

Babies have skin that burns more easily, so they should be kept out of the sun whenever possible. If your baby must be in the sun, dress them in lightweight clothing that covers the body, including hats with wide brims to shadow their face. If your baby is younger than 6 months old and still has small areas of skin (like the face) exposed, apply a tiny amount of SPF 30 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.

Wear Sunglasses

Sun exposure damages the eyes as well as the skin. 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% UV protection.

Let kids pick their own pair — many options are fun, with multicolored frames or cartoon characters. Look for sunglasses with at least 99% UV protection.

Double-Check Medicines

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 because 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 feel like their skin is hot. This usually gets worse several hours after sun exposure. Because the sun has dried the 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 a moisturizing cream with aloe vera or aloe vera gel (available in most drugstores) to any sunburned areas.
  • Give your child a pain medicine like ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease the pain and itching. (Do not give aspirin to children or teens.) Over-the-counter diphenhydramine also may help ease itching and swelling.
  • For painful 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.)
  • Make sure your child drinks plenty of liquids.

If 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. If your child needs to go outside, make sure the sunburned areas are completely covered. Any further sun exposure will only make the burn worse and increase pain.

If your child has fever, chills, a headache, or feels sick to their stomach or confused after getting a sunburn, call your doctor. They might need a health care visit to feel better.

What Else Should I Know?

The sun's rays vary depending on the time of year, the altitude, and how close you are to the equator:

  • UV rays are strongest during summer. But the summer season happens at different times of year around the world. If you travel to a foreign country during its summer season, pack or buy the strongest sun protection you can find.
  • 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.
  • 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.

And don't forget to be a good role model. Use sunscreen, wear sunglasses, and limit your time in the sun. You'll reduce your risk of sun damage and teach your kids good sun sense.

Medically reviewed by: Melanie L. Pitone, MD
Date reviewed: June 2022