Sunscreen, caution can protect kids from sunburns
Summer is in full swing in the Pacific Northwest, and that can mean sunburns for people who don’t take the proper precautions to protect their skin.
We all need some sun exposure; it's our primary source of vitamin D, which helps us absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones. But repeated unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays can cause skin damage, eye damage, immune system suppression and skin cancer.
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, kids can safely play in the sun. Here are the most effective strategies.
Avoid the strongest rays of the day
If you can, stay out of the sun when it’s highest overhead and therefore strongest (usually 10am to 4pm). If kids must be in the sun between these hours, 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.
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.
Wear protective clothing. 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 should not be applied to babies under 6 months of age, so they 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 sunscreen consistently
Lots of good sunscreens are available for kids, including formulations for sensitive skin, 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 30 or higher. 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, don't use sunscreens with PABA; 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 sure to:
- Apply sunscreen whenever kids will be outdoors
- 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 two hours, as recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology, and reapply after a child has been sweating or swimming
- Apply a water resistant sunscreen if kids will be around water or swimming. Water reflects and intensifies the sun's rays, so kids need protection that lasts. Water resistant sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water, but regardless of the label, be sure to reapply sunscreen every two hours, and when kids come out of the water
Keep in mind that every child needs extra sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone — 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.
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. 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 vulnerable to infection.
If your child does get a sunburn, these tips may help:
- Have your child take a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses to the skin to help alleviate pain and heat
- To ease discomfort, apply pure aloe vera gel (available in most pharmacies) to any sunburned areas
- Give your child an anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen or use acetaminophen to lessen the pain and itching. (Do not, however, give aspirin to children or teens.) Over-the-counter diphenhydramine may also help reduce itching and swelling
- Apply topical moisturizing cream to rehydrate the skin and treat itching. For the more seriously sunburned areas, apply a thin layer of 1 percent 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. 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 scarring. 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.
Be sun safe yourself
Don't forget: Be a good role model by consistently wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater, using sunglasses and limiting your time in the sun. These preventive behaviors not only reduce your risk of sun damage, but teach your kids good sun sense.
This story was originally published in June 2012 and updated in July 2017.