Parenting: Kids and Sunburn

A roasted Murphy child.

David Murphy says, "Make your first summer purchase sunscreen."
June 15, 2011 5:28:42 AM PDT
David Murphy says, "Make your first summer purchase sunscreen."

Everyone in the Murphy family has made that typical summer mistake: forgetting to put on sunscreen. And we've all paid with sore skin. Of course, there's a bigger payment down the road if you do this repeatedly. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 65 percent of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun. And it doesn't take much to get kids on the road toward problems. The Foundation advises that just one severe sunburn during childhood doubles the chances of developing skin cancer later in life. Children with fair skin, blond or red hair and blue or green eyes are at the highest risk of sunburn, but that doesn't mean darker-skinned children don't need sun protection---they do.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has an on-line tip sheet for parents explaining the latest thinking in sun safety. It covers separate tips for babies and other kids, partly because young infants are so much more susceptible to sun-related problems. Here's the skinny.

Babes In The Sun

Babies under six months old, according to the AAP, are at special risk for sunburn because their skin has not yet developed any significant level of natural sun protection. The general advice is to avoid direct exposure altogether by dressing infants in light-weight, long sleeve and long pant leg outfits, as well as a wide-brimmed hat that shades both the face and the neck. If sun exposure is unavoidable, a small amount of sunscreen is okay on the neck, face and back of the hands, as well as legs and arms, but use a minimum of SPF 15 and re-apply every couple of hours. Again, the best advice for infants under 6 months is to cover up and avoid direct exposure. When putting an infant down for a nap at a picnic or other outdoor event, be mindful of the changing sun angle. A shaded bassinette could become a sunny one an hour later if not attended to.

The AAP says covering-up is also the best line of defense for other children, too. Hats are recommended. The wide-brimmed variety that shades the neck and face is best, but a baseball cap is better than nothing. Bright-colored, light-weight, cotton shirts are the best choice, with a tight weave. Sunscreen is also essential, but only if used according to the rules; otherwise, it may not do the job.

How Much and How Often

In general, you want at least an SPF 15 sunscreen, although higher numbers are also fine. Pick a brand that protects from both UVA and UVB rays (UVA rays are constant strength, omni-present rays from the sun, UVB rays grow more intense in the summer and actually do most of the damage to your skin). Use the right amount, too. The AAP says a young adult should typically use about one ounce of sunscreen per application. One treatment is not enough during long days of exposure. Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating. And by the way, use extra caution around sand, water (or even snow!), since all those light, reflective surfaces redirect UV rays, making the exposure potentially worse. Remember that the sun usually poses the biggest the threat between the hours of 10am and 4pm, when the sun angle is highest and the UV rays are the strongest. This doesn't mean that sunscreen isn't necessary outside of these times. It does mean that a burn can happen more quickly when the sun is higher in the sky.

Don't forget about your kids' eyes, too! Most sun advice websites and organizations say a good pair of sunglasses (with 97-100% protection against UVA and UBA waves) not only protect the eyes, but also shade the sensitive skin around the eyes.

Avoiding the sun is usually not possible when the weather's nice, nor is it advisable. After all, kids who spend time outdoors are generally more active and physically fit. But the risk of skin cancer is too great not to be taken seriously.

---David Murphy

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