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 repeated unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can have serious effects.
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.
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 UVC.
1. UVA 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 as well as UVB rays. A UVA tan does nothelp protect the skin from further sun damage; it merely produces color and a false sense of protection from the sun.
2. 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. 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 damage.
3. UVC 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.
First, seek shade when the sun is at its highest overhead (usually 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. in the northern hemisphere). If kids must be in the sun between these hours, be sure to apply and reapply 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.
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 (clouding of the eye lens, which leads to blurred vision) later in life. The best way to protect eyes is to wear sunglasses.
Put on a Hat
Covering up your child’s arms and legs with light clothing can provide some protection against UV sun radiation. Having her wear a hat with a brim that shades her face can also increase your child’s protection against the sun.
Use Sunscreen Consistently
Lots of good sunscreens are available for kids, including types for sensitive skin, brands with fun scents like watermelon, long-lasting waterproof and sweat-proof versions, and easy-application varieties in spray bottles. I even saw a sunscreen at the store the other day that you can spray on kids while they are wet!
Completely ignore sunscreen claims of waterproof and/or sweat-proof. According to Carol Schuler of Coolibar, “The term ‘waterproof’ has undergone inadequate testing and the term ‘sweat-proof’ has had no testing to substantiate the label. The FDA has asked sunscreen manufacturers to voluntarily remove this marketing term from their labels.”
What matters most in a sunscreen is the degree of protection from UV rays it provides. For kids age 6 months and older, select an SPF of 30 or higher to prevent both sunburn and tanning. Choose a sunscreen that states on the label that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays (referred to as “broad-spectrum” sunscreen). For sunscreen to do its job, it must be applied correctly. Be sure to:
- Apply sunscreen whenever kids will be in the sun.
- Apply sunscreen about 15 to 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 generously.
- Reapply sunscreen often, approximately every 2 hours, as recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. Reapply after a child has been 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 kids — regardless of their skin tone — wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 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 kids also can develop painful sunburns too – so be safe and have fun in the sun this summer!