By Dr. JJ Levenstein, M.D., FAAP
Summer is filled with fun outdoor activities, but these pastimes don’t come without a cost to your little one’s skin. In fact, it only takes 2-3 blistering sunburns as a child to potentially double the risk of melanoma later in life, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.
Although we can blame the sun for more than 90 percent of all cases of skin cancer, 33 percent of us don’t protect our skin regularly. You can help protect your children from the sun’s rays year-round by teaching the importance of proper skin care with these practical tips.
Protect your child’s skin early. The sun can be especially harsh on infants, whose sensitive skin is easily burned. As children grow, their thin, tender and sensitive skin becomes thicker and more protective. If a baby’s skin – her biggest organ – is damaged, it lessens her ability to fight infection and regulate temperature.
Ideally, baby should not be exposed to direct sunlight during her first several months of life. If avoiding direct sun exposure is impossible, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends protecting baby with a broad-spectrum sunscreen that offers at least SPF 15 and UVA and UVB protection. UVA rays – known as the “aging rays” – lead to wrinkles, spots and skin cancer. UVB rays – known as “burning rays” – sizzle the top layer of the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer.
Choose physical sunscreens. For a child’s sensitive skin, use a physical sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – key ingredients that offer the safest level of protection and least risk of skin irritation. A physical sunscreen coats the skin, deflects UV rays and protects directly after application. By contrast, the skin absorbs chemical sunscreen – chemical ingredients may increase risk of irritation and delay protection against UV rays if less than 20-30 minutes have not elapsed since application.
Protect against irritants. Although manufacturers are more aware of consumers’ concerns about potentially harmful ingredients in sunscreen, many ingredients in products may still irritate a child’s sensitive skin. Look for lotions withoutoxybenzone, phthalates, lanolin, mineral oil, petroleum or waxes to protect from the sun and harmful irritants.
Because baby’s mouth may come in contact with areas of skin where sunscreen has been applied, safe, non-toxic physical sunscreens are the obvious choice. Chemical sunscreens that contain non-ingestible ingredients should only be used on older children.
No matter which sunscreen you choose, you should always test the product on a small portion of your child’s skin for a few hours and monitor for any irritation before applying to the rest of her body. If irritation occurs, wash the sunscreen off your child and discontinue use.
Measure accurately. As a rule of thumb, use 1/2 ounce of sunscreen – about a palm-full – per application on a child.For an adolescent or adult, use at least 1 ounce (a shot glass full)/application. If you choose to usea chemical sunscreen, apply the product to your child’s face and body, wait 20 minutes, and then reapply to catch any missed spots. Apply sunscreen more generously to skin that rubs against clothing or collects sweat.
Apply regularly. For days when your child’s skin is dry, you need only reapply sunscreen every 2-3 hours. If your child’s skin becomes wet or sweaty, or toweling off, reapply sunscreen more often at 1-2 hour intervals.If you’re at the pool, beach or ski slopes, take care to reapply generously and often. Consistent use is most important when around water, sand and snow, as these elements reflect the sun’s rays and increase the risk of sunburn.
Check the date. Dispose of sunscreen after its expiration date has passed. Sunscreen typically loses its potency after two seasons.If the date is in question or not printed on the packaging, call the manufacturer or purchase a new bottle.
Seek shade. Avoid direct sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The most damaging UV radiation occurs during these peak hours of the day. If outdoors, find a shady area for your child to play and apply sunscreen often.
Dress for the sun. Dress your child in clothes that offer UV protection or wash tightly woven cotton clothing in an SPF rinse. Washes can raise the SPF value of clothing from 5 (the SPF value of an average T-shirt) to SPF 30. You can also shade your child’s face and ears with a wide-brimmed hat. Further, protect her eyes with sunglasses that block 99-100 percent of UV rays. Check for UVA and UVB protection on product tags of all clothing and accessories before purchasing.
Help sunburns heal. Most sunburns stem from improper protection on overcast days. The sun’s rays may reflect off water, sand or buildings and damage skin whether baby is at the beach or in the city. If your child becomes sunburned, use cool compresses and oral pain relief medicine. Dress your child in loose, soft clothing that does not irritate the skin. If your child experiences blistering underneath the skin or complains of pain that cannot be alleviated with simple measures, see your health care provider. Carefully monitor your child for signs of dehydration, such as dry mouth, nausea or dizziness or decreased activity.
Remember to practice sun safety on yourself and your children! You can help your children enjoy fun in the summer sun the healthy way — and can rest easy knowing you’ve taken the preventative measures to protect your children’s (and your) skin long-term.
How do you practice year-round sun safety for your children?