How to Properly Apply Sunscreen on Your Children and Stay Safe Playing In the Sun…

You can keep your kids safe AND enjoying the beautiful sunny weather! Just a few serious sunburns can increase your child’s risk of skin cancer later in life. Kids don’t have to be at the pool, beach, or on vacation to get too much sun. Their skin needs protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays whenever they’re outdoors. The two main concerns are the painful effects of sunburn and the long term risk of skin cancer. I don’t think any of us want our kids to experience the severe discomfort of a blistering sunburn, but it’s important to consider the long-term consequences, as well. Skin cancer is caused by mutations in the DNA within your skin cells triggered by exposure to ultraviolet light. 

Risk Factors For Skin Cancer Include…

  • A lighter natural skin color.
  • Family history of skin cancer.
  • A personal history of skin cancer.
  • Exposure to the sun.
  • A history of sunburns, especially early in life.
  • A history of indoor tanning.
  • Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun.
  • Blue or green eyes.
  • Blond or red hair.
  • Certain types and a large number of moles.

There’s not much you can do about fair skin and blond or red hair or blue or green eyes, but some risk factors are “modifiable,” meaning that there are things we can do to reduce our children’s risk of cancer. Seems worthwhile to me. Here are a few things that can minimize the risk of sunburn and skin cancer, while maximizing your fun at the beach or pool:

Avoid Peak Sun Intensity

The peak sun intensity hours, when UV light is strongest, are between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. standard time or 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. daylight savings time. When possible, plan children’s outdoor activities for early morning or late afternoon when the sun’s rays are less intense. Unfortunately, these times coincide with the times when most of us take our kids to the beach or pool. (That’s the problem with some of our recommendations; they’re just not very realistic.) But if you can choose early morning or evening times instead of midday exposure, it certainly makes a difference.

Seek Shade

UV rays are strongest and most harmful during midday, so it’s best to plan indoor activities then. If this is not possible, seek shade under a tree, an umbrella, or a pop-up tent. Use these options to prevent sunburn, not to seek relief after it’s happened. This is easiest for non-mobile infants, but if you can convince your kids to build sandcastles in the shade, that’s awesome, too.

Dress For The Occasion

Cover up when possible. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants or skirts can provide protection from UV rays. Clothes made from tightly woven fabric offer the best protection. A wet T-shirt offers much less UV protection than a dry one, and darker colors may offer more protection than lighter colors. Some clothing certified under international standards comes with information on its ultraviolet protection factor. There’s a wide variety of protective clothing available for infants and older kids, too. In general, clothing provides better protection than sunscreen. Just make sure it’s breathable–we’re not trying to bake them. Don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat.

Wear Sunglasses

They protect your child’s eyes from UV rays, which can lead to cataracts later in life. Look for sunglasses that wrap around and block as close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays as possible. They don’t have to be Ray-Bans, but sunglasses that offer UVA/UVB protection are a must-have for everyone.

Apply Sunscreen

Use sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and UVA and UVB (broad spectrum) protection every time your child goes outside. For the best protection, apply sunscreen generously 30 minutes before going outdoors. Don’t forget to protect the nose, ears, lips, and the tops of feet. Choose and use sunscreen wisely as sunscreens work by absorbing or reflecting the ultraviolet radiation before it gets into the skin. There are two wavelengths of light (UVA & UVB) that can cause damage to the skin, so check the bottle to make sure you’re protecting against both.

Water-Resistant Sunscreens

Water-resistant sunscreens are essential if your kids will be playing in the water. Or sweating. Basically, anytime you’d think about using sunscreen. It can also help avoid the dreaded splash-to-the-face/sunscreen-in-the-eyes phenomenon. Remember, no sunscreen is towel-resistant, so you’ll need to reapply after toweling off. There are plenty of water resistant sun protection products that can guard against harmful rays. Throw a few waterproof sunscreens in your bag and you’re all set for a safe summer filled with fun in the sun.

Sunscreen vs Chemicals or Toxins

There’s a lot of fuss about “chemicals” or “toxins” in sunscreen, but very little evidence that these cause significant harm. It’s important to keep in mind that everything is made of chemicals, including your children, and that “chemicals” are totally unavoidable and not inherently harmful. The biggest risk of using sunscreen, especially for those with sensitive skin, is a rash (which hurts less than sunburn and certainly doesn’t cause cancer). If your child has trouble with this, sunscreens that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide provide great protection with minimal skin irritation. Scientists have tested topical application of sunscreen on actual people. A 2004 study had 32 participants apply a basic lotion every day for a week. The following week, they applied sunscreen and the researchers found no difference in hormone levels that could be attributed to sunscreen. “There’s no evidence that these [ingredients] are carcinogenic,” Dr. Gohara says.

Babies and Sunscreen

Protecting your baby from the sun’s bright rays is more important than ever because her sensitive baby skin is extra susceptible to serious burns, and one bad burn during childhood can double a child’s risk of melanoma later in life. You may have read that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding sunscreen use in infants under 6 months…but they also recommend keeping those infants out of the sun. Realistically speaking, the risks of sun exposure are far greater than the risks of sunscreen, so if they’re going to be in the sun, sunscreen up. No real reason that you have to purchase “baby” sunscreen. And, conversely, there’s no reason you can’t use “baby” sunscreen on yourself. Sometimes, the only differences are the price and the size of the bottle–it’s all about marketing. As long as it provides the appropriate protection without irritating the skin, it really doesn’t matter.

Remember: No matter which sunscreen you choose, it only works if you use it.

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