Healthy Living

Keeping Kids Safe in the Sun

Jun. 28, 2024

Before heading out to enjoy the warm weather and soak up some sunshine, check out this advice from UR Medicine Primary Care's Dr. Michael Gavin for protecting kids from too much sun.

“Sun exposure—especially burns—in the first 10 years of life can, in part, determine one’s risk for skin cancer,” says Dr. Gavin. “Suffering one or more blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chances of developing potentially deadly melanoma later in life.”

Children’s skin and the sun: Know the facts

While many people strive for a summer tan, it’s actually quite bad for your skin.

“You may think a tan looks healthy but tanned skin is damaged skin.”

A tan is our skin’s response to injury. When skin becomes injured by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, it produces more pigment (melanin). It’s important to wear sunscreen and take measures to protect your skin from the sun.

What sunscreen should my kid wear?

Look for sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) between 15-50 that says "broad-spectrum" on the label, which means it will screen out both UVB and UVA rays.

close up of squeezing sunscreen onto palm.

High SPF sunscreens may provide false security. SPF mainly protects against UVB (skin burn) radiation, not UVA (deep-tissue penetrating) radiation. UVA is what likely causes skin cancer.

Stick to zinc oxide-based or mineral-based sunscreens if possible and avoid products containing oxybenzone. Oxybenzone can seep into the skin and cause estrogen-like effects, similar to BPA. There are also concerns that it may cause cancer and other issues. However, using any sunscreen is better than not using sunscreen at all.

Avoid retinyl palmitate products, which can speed the development of skin cancer.

Spray sunscreens, though easy to use, make it easy to miss areas and have inhalation risks.

Can you get sunburn when it’s cloudy?

UV rays, not the temperature, cause the skin damage. You can get sunburn even on cloudy days; up to 80% of the sun's UV rays can get through the clouds. Kids still need protection with sunscreen.

Can I take my infant out in the sun?

The best approach to protecting infants younger than 6 months from UV exposure is to keep them out of direct sunlight. Babies have less mature skin (less melanin) that has a higher risk of damage when in the sun.

Infant in a sun hat with sunscreen

Dress infants in a sun hat, lightweight long pants, and long-sleeved shirts. Be sure their hat is brimmed and shades the neck to prevent sunburn.

Should babies wear sunscreen?

It’s generally not recommended to put sunscreen on babies. I may not offer adequate protection and may increase their exposure to the chemicals in sunscreen. However, for babies under 6 months, you may use sunscreen on small areas of the body, such as the face, if protective clothing and shade are not available.

If you do notice your baby is becoming sunburned, get out of the sun right away and apply cold compresses to the affected areas.

It’s also important to note that baby and adult sunscreen products are essentially the same. And again, I again recommend those that are mineral-based.

What are the best sunscreen habits?

Use enough sunscreen to cover all exposed areas, especially the face, nose, ears, feet, hands, and the backs of the knees. Rub it in well. If possible, apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outdoors; it needs time to absorb into the skin. Use sunscreen any time you or your child spend time outdoors. Reapply it every two hours and after swimming, sweating, or drying off with a towel.

I’ve heard of sunscreens that aren’t available in the United States. Are those safe?

The U.S. is currently looking into allowing other sunscreens on the market that are used in several other countries. These are chemical-based sunscreens that we believe are safe and even more broad spectrum than what we use here.

One ingredient, bemotrizinol, has been shown to be as safe as mineral-based sunscreens. We could see this product secure FDA approval by the end of 2025. More to come on this but, for now, I recommend using what’s available.

How else can I protect my children from sunburns?

Unprotected skin can be damaged by UV rays in as little as 15 minutes, but it might take up to 12 hours to notice this in the skin. If skin is starting to change color, it may be burned by the next morning. To prevent more damage, get out of the sun.

Always pack sunscreen in your child’s bag if they are going to participating in sports, camp, or other outdoor activities. Make sure to put it on them before they leave the house and reapply it often.

Avoid tanning lotions that often contain ingredients that are not safety tested nor protective from the sun.

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