Sun protection 101: Pediatric dermatologists tips for sunscreen and more

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

Whether they’re playing in the backyard or swimming at the beach, kids need to be protected from the sun, especially in the summer months. According to the Society for Pediatric Dermatology, just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles the chances of developing melanoma later in life. More research finds that five or more bad sunburns before age 20 can increase someone’s risk of melanoma by a whopping 80 percent. 

With a plethora of sunscreens on the market, it can be hard for parents to decipher what’s best for their children. You want them to be protected from sunburns, but you also want to make sure what you’re putting on them is safe. 

Here are some tips for protecting your children from the sun and choosing a sunscreen from doctors at the SPD: 

Avoiding sun 

If possible, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. It is best to plan indoor activities or seek shade under trees, umbrellas, or tents. One useful rule of thumb is that if your shadow is shorter than you, the sun is directly above and it is best to head for cover. Sun exposure is more intense closer to the equator, in the mountains, and in the summer. The sun's damaging rays are increased by reflection from water, white sand, and snow.

Protective clothing

Cover skin with sun protective clothing when outdoors, including a wide-brimmed hat to protect the face, scalp, ears and neck. In addition to filtering out the sun, tightly woven clothing reflects heat and helps keep you feeling cool. Sunglasses with UV protection can help protect the eyes and eyelids from the harmful effects of UV light. Not all sunglasses have UV protection, so be sure to check the label.

Choosing and applying sunscreen

Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher. The protective ability of sunscreen is rated by its Sun Protection Factor (SPF) – the higher the SPF, the stronger the protection. Sunscreens labeled as “broad spectrum” indicate that they have passed the test for protection against UVA. Spread sunscreen evenly over all uncovered skin, including ears and lips, but avoid the eyelids.

Most importantly, choose a sunscreen that your child will wear. New sunscreens are added to the marketplace frequently, and selection of a particular brand is often a matter of personal preference. Sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide may result in whitish discoloration of the skin. Therefore, for dark-skinned children, sunscreens that do not contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide should be considered. 

On the other hand, if sunscreen makes your child’s eyes or skin burn, look for sunscreens that are fragrance free and do contain ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as these tend to be less irritating.

Infants should be kept out of direct sun and be covered by protective clothing when possible. If sun exposure is unavoidable, sunscreen should be applied to exposed areas (i.e. face, hands). 

Sunscreens have been deemed safe for infants older than 6 months of age.

Apply a broad-spectrum UVA and UVB sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher 20-30 minutes before going outside and reapply at least every two hours, even on cloudy days. If swimming or sweating, sunscreen needs to be applied more often. There is no such thing as a “waterproof” sunscreen. Instead, look for products that say “water resistant” for use in water. Reapply more frequently if perspiring excessively or toweling off frequently.

Spray sunscreens

Spray sunscreens can provide coverage from UV rays, however care must be taken to avoid accidental inhalation of the product, especially in children. The sunscreens need to be applied evenly to avoid skipped areas due to the distribution of the droplets on the skin. Spraying sunscreen on the hands and then applying, rather than spraying the face directly, can help children avoid breathing in these fumes. 

What about cloudy days?

The clouds block a good part of UVB, the burning rays, but they do not block UVA, the tanning rays. Therefore, while there is less probability of getting sunburn, the skin is exposed to the deeper penetrating UVA rays, which cause tanning and wrinkling. As a result, it is important to stay protected from the sun, even on cloudy days.

Source: The Importance of Sun Protection, Society of Pediatric Dermatology