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Sunscreen and Sun Safety Tips

Wearing sunscreen is important to protect your child’s skin from sunburn now, and prevent skin cancers down the line. Before you hit the lake, playground, or camp, make sure you and your children apply sunscreen and reapply it often. Kids should be reminded to apply and reapply sunscreen – even if it doesn’t seem like the cool thing to do.

When skin is exposed to sunlight, it can burn or tan. A sunburn means parts of skin are damaged or dead. Sunburn can show up in as few as 15 minutes and usually looks the worst about 6 to 24 hours after sun exposure. Severe sunburns may even blister and could increase the risk for the development of melanoma – the most serious type of skin cancer. Significant sun exposure in childhood is a risk factor for development of skin cancers in adulthood.

A tan occurs several days after the sun exposure, and is a sign of the skin trying to protect itself from further damage. Some people may tan and never burn, while others may burn and never tan. Regardless if you tan or burn, everyone’s skin is damaged by sun exposure.

Here are tips on how to protect your child’s skin:

  • Start early. Children whose parents regularly apply sunscreen at an early age are more likely to continue using sunscreen as teenagers and adults. Make a habit of using sunscreen to set kids up for a lifetime of safely enjoying outdoor activities.
  • Stay cool. Avoiding the sun altogether is the best protection for our skin, but we also want our kids to participate in physical activities, many of which are outdoors. The sun’s rays are strongest from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., so try to limit being in the sun during these hours by staying in the shade or indoors. If you are out between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. wear sunscreen.
  • Cover up. Protective clothing can be helpful when children are outside for a long time. It can be hard to take a break from play to reapply sunscreen – especially when kids and clothes are wet, sweaty, or sandy. Look for swimwear and clothing with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating. Hats can protect the top of the head, ears, and back of the neck (if the hat has a brim). Protective clothing and hats are essential for babies younger than six months, since sunscreen is not recommended for this age group. Be sure to apply sunscreen to the uncovered parts of the skin – face, neck, hands, and feet.
  • Protect those baby blues. Sunglasses are often overlooked for children, but they can protect you from skin cancers like melanoma which may occur inside the eye. Other eye conditions like cataracts and macular degeneration can also be related to UV exposure.
  • Apply early and often. Sunscreen should be applied in a thick layer (about ¼ teaspoon for a toddler’s face), 30 minutes before heading outside and reapplied every 2 hours. If children are swimming or sweating a lot, reapply sunscreen more often and use a water-resistant formula. For a week-long beach vacation, a school-aged child should go through an entire 8 oz. bottle of sunscreen, applying it twice a day.

The best sunscreen is one that can be regularly applied and stay on the skin without causing irritation or other side effects; which usually depends on the child and the activity. Here are a few things to consider:

  • SPF: For casual daily use, choose an SPF 15 sunscreen. When you’ll be outside for a long time, an SPF 30 is better, particularly for fair-skinned children. In general, kids with fairer (lighter) skin need to use a sunscreen with a higher SPF.
  • Type of sunscreen:
    • Gels can be helpful for hairy body sites, but tend to cause more stinging on the face and are easily removed by swimming and sweating.
    • Sprays, while convenient, are hard to apply evenly and tend to be less effective.
    • Lotions are the most common type of sunscreen. Many people find it easier to put on a thick layer of lotion than other types of sunscreen.
  • Type of skin:
    • Children with sensitive skin tend to do better with only physical blockers (titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) as the ingredients.
    • In teenagers with acne, gels and lotions are good options to provide protection without worsening acne.
  • When to throw it out:
    • Look for an expiration date on the bottle. Throw out expired sunscreen.
    • If there is no expiration date, throw out sunscreen 3 years after opening.
    • If your sunscreen looks or feels really different – it’s much thicker or thinner or the color has changed – throw it out.

It often takes a trial of several sunscreens before finding the one that does the job best for your family, even if that means everyone uses a different type of product.

Learn more about sun safety, here or listen to our PediaCast, here. Or, you can learn more about dermatology at Nationwide Children’s hospital, including services provided and clinic locations, here.

Katya Harfmann, MD
Katya Harfmann, MD, is an attending dermatologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Assistant Professor of Dermatology and Pediatric Dermatology at The Ohio State University. Dr. Harfmann is board certified in dermatology. Her clinical and research interests include hair loss, alopecia areata and quality of life issues.Dr. Harfmann started a Pediatric Hair Disorders Clinic at Nationwide Children’s in Fall 2015. The clinic provides specialized care for children experiencing hair loss and hair growth disorders. Dr. Harfmann is available to see patients suffering from hair loss, hair shaft disorders and excessive hair growth.
Tracy Mehan, MA
Tracy Mehan is the manager of translational research for the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. In this role, she takes injury prevention research out of the journals and into the community. As the mother of a very active 12-year-old boy and an aunt to 21 nieces and nephews, she frequently gets to see firsthand the need for various injury prevention measures. When she isn’t out trying to save the world, you can find her on the basketball court with her son, with her nose in her kindle, or exploring websites on pirate trivia.

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