Be Sun Smart: How to Protect Your Child’s Skin

Young boy applying suncreen

When you think of summer, sunny days with kids splashing in the water and teens lounging in the sun come to mind. While these idyllic times are great for making memories, they are also (unfortunately) great at causing sunburns and skin damage.

Lauren Strelitz, MD, a pediatrician at Bayside Medical Group – Pinole, shares ways you can keep your family sun-safe all year round. She also discusses this in a HealthTalks podcast.

Lauren Strelitz, MD, Healthtalks

Why sun protection is important

The sun provides essential vitamin D, which is important for helping us build strong bones, but it also gives off UV rays that can make your skin burn and cause skin damage. So, it’s important to strike a balance to protect our little ones’ tender skin when they are outdoors.

“Sun protection is important for a lot of reasons,” Dr. Strelitz explained. “Certainly, there are benefits to exposure to the sun, but too much exposure can cause skin cancer. It causes mutations in the DNA in your skin that can lead to cancer. It also causes burns, which can be extremely painful and uncomfortable.”

Everyone needs sunscreen every day

Sunscreen can block out harmful UV rays. It is the first line of defense against sun damage and skin cancer, according to Dr. Strelitz. From children to adults, and with every shade of skin, everyone needs to be wearing sunscreen every day.

“Nobody’s exempt: It doesn’t matter how much melanin you have; anyone can get skin cancer and burn regardless of their skin tone,” she said. “[Sunscreen] also slows aging of the skin, so it decreases the amount of wrinkles that we’ll have later.”

The only exception is babies under 6 months of age. “Kids under 6 months aren’t really great at regulating their body temperature, and they should be avoiding direct sunlight in general. They shouldn’t actually need sunscreen because they’re not in the sun,” Dr. Strelitz said.

Dr. Strelitz urges parents to apply sunscreen to their kids’ skin every day, even on cloudy days or in the winter.

“You definitely want to apply sunscreen on a warm, sunny day. But even when it’s not sunny, it is good to put sunscreen on when you’re going outside because we are still exposed to UV light,” she said. “If you’re skiing or snowboarding, it reflects on surfaces like snow—and even cement or puddles of water.”

Apply sunscreen properly

Dr. Strelitz recommends following these guidelines when applying sunscreen:

  • Make sure to apply enough sunscreen: Use 1.5 to 2 tablespoons of sunscreen per application.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before sun exposure; skin needs time to absorb the sunscreen.
  • Reapply throughout the day; follow the manufacturer’s instructions, generally at least every 90 to 120 minutes (more frequently if you’re in the water or sweating).
  • Pay attention to easy-to-miss spots like the back of the neck and ears.
  • Do a patch test before starting a new sunscreen with your child: Apply a small 1-inch patch on their skin for two nights in a row to check for a reaction.

For kids who fight wearing sunscreen, Dr. Strelitz suggests finding ways to make it enjoyable, so they get used to the routine.

“There are some colorful zinc sticks, and you could draw pictures and things like that. Something colorful might be compelling to your child. There’s also a colorful foam sunscreen that you can put on and rub in,” she said. “Make it fun: Engage them, make it a game. Start when they are really young, and do it often to make it part of their going-outside routine.”

Deciding which sunscreen is right for your family

Choosing the right sunscreen for your family may seem challenging, with the vast array of choices available. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, and mineral sunscreens use minerals like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to block UV rays from reaching the skin. Dr. Strelitz recommends starting with mineral-based sunscreens because they tend to be better for children’s sensitive skin, but any sunscreen is good, as long as you are using it.

“The most effective sunscreen is the one you’re able to get on your child,” Dr. Strelitz said. “It is important that they get in the habit, and parents have to stand firm and find a way to work around it. Starting off with the mineral ones would be ideal. You want to make sure it’s broad spectrum, water resistant, and that the SPF is 30 SPF or higher.”

Wear protective clothing

In addition to sunscreen, wearing the right clothes in the sun can add another layer of protection from UV rays, such as cool, comfortable clothing that covers the body; long-sleeved shirts; and clothes that are lightweight, Dr. Strelitz said.

“Choose clothes that have a tight weave to be more protective and decrease the sun exposure,” she added. “The looser the weave is, then the more ultraviolet light can get in.”

She also recommends that children wear hats and sunglasses when out in the sun.

“Wearing a hat, not just a hat with a brim on the front like a baseball cap, but a hat that has a brim that goes all the way around, is going to give the face, ears, and back of the neck a little protection. I also recommend sunglasses for sun protection as well.”

Seek shelter in the shade

Babies under 6 months should always be kept out of direct sunlight. Dr. Strelitz recommends using a tree, umbrella, or stroller with a canopy to keep them in the shade. For older babies and children, having a shady place to take a break can help keep them from getting overheated and protect them from sun damage.

It’s also a good idea to limit direct sun exposure in the late morning and afternoon. Encourage activities in shaded areas during that window.

“There is going to be the most type of sunlight that can cause damage between 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. If you are doing a beach day, or if you are doing something outside, make sure there’s shade and that you can take breaks,” Dr. Strelitz advised. “That might be setting up a tent or having an umbrella. Coming in and out of the sun is going to be the best.”

Get more advice from Dr. Strelitz: Doctor’s Office, Urgent Care, or Emergency Room: What’s the Right Choice for Your Child? Or check out Helping Kids Stay Safe, Healthy During Summer Break for more summer tips.

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