Wide-brimmed hats, brightly colored plastic sunglasses, and graphic-print long-sleeve tees. This isn’t just cute toddler wear, they’re summer safety essentials for kids.
We can’t wait to get outside to enjoy summertime activities, and we’re much smarter about protecting our kids from sunburn. We’ve all heard it — just one bad sunburn in childhood more than doubles a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. But isn’t a little sun healthy? And how much is too much?
It’s simple: Any tan is unsafe. And exposure to ultraviolet radiation over time — even in small amounts — can cause DNA damage. The American Cancer Society estimates that 2 million people a year in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer, and the Mayo Clinic says every hour in the U.S. one person dies of melanoma.
It’s common sense to protect our kids from the pain of a sunburn; we should also be protecting them from sun exposure of any amount. And the earlier we begin practicing sun safety, the better. Here’s how to start.
Infants, 0 to 6 months
Your baby is especially susceptible to sunburn and should be kept out of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation completely. Her skin has little melanin, the pigment that gives the skin color, and her delicate skin is too sensitive for allover sunscreen. To protect your infant:
- Dress her in lightweight, breathable clothing that covers her arms and legs. Bright colors are better, because soft whites and pastels let more light reach the skin. Protect her face, neck, and ears with a wide-brimmed hat or bonnet with at least a four-inch brim, and shield her sensitive eyes with UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Take walks early in the morning or evening, before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., to avoid the sun’s UV rays when they are most intense. Use a stroller with a sun-protective cover.
- In the car, use removable mesh shields or UV film to keep direct sunlight from coming through the windows. UV window film can screen almost 100 percent of UV rays without reducing visibility.
- Avoid sunscreen or use it sparingly. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Skin Cancer Foundation recommend using sunscreen only on children older than 6 months, the American Academy of Pediatrics says you can apply it to small areas of exposed skin on babies. Check with your pediatrician if you’re not sure.
6 to 12 months
At 6 months of age, it’s safe to slather on the sunscreen, but avoid using a single product that combines sunscreen and insect repellent containing DEET. DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is the active ingredient in many insect repellents. While sunscreens should be applied generously and frequently, DEET should only be applied every two to six hours, depending on the concentration, and should not be applied to the face. In addition, the sunscreen’s ability to screen out UV radiation can be decreased by the repellent, while the toxicity of the repellent is increased by the sunscreen.
- Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, of at least a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 — the American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF of 30 or more. Apply it to all exposed skin, like your baby’s hands, at least 30 minutes before going outside.
- There are a big variety of sunscreens. Choose one for babies — some prefer lotions because they feel they last longer — and look for another just for faces. These formulations won’t run, and if it happens to get into your baby’s eyes, it won’t sting.
- If you do use a spray sunscreen, never apply it directly to the face. Instead, mist into your hands and then spread it on your baby’s face.
- Continue to dress your baby in the protective clothing, hat, and sunglasses.
- Remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or excessive sweating.
Toddlers to preschool age
Protecting your toddler from the sun is similar to what you’ve already been doing, except he may need more reapplications to go along with his increased activity level. It’s also the time to start educating him and his caregivers about sun protection. Make it part of his (and your) routine. Apply sunscreen. While it’s drying, help him pick out his clothes for the day. Then get dressed. It's like riding a bike: Just like you can’t ride without a helmet, you don’t go outside without sunscreen.
- Continue using broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF 15 or higher, and consider water-resistant options for splash parks, pool parties, and activities where your toddler will be sweating a lot.
- Make sure your toddler is covered. Long-sleeve, unbleached cotton clothing is cool and comfortable, and clothing with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) listing on the label offers extra security. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends clothing with a UPF of 30 or higher.
- Keep your child in the shade between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are the most intense.
What to do if your child does get a sunburn
Don’t beat yourself up! You can have the best of intentions, and your child can still get sunburned.
- Offer extra fluids to prevent dehydration. Water is best, but juices and other liquids help too.
- Apply cool compresses to burned skin or give your toddler a cool bath right before she goes to bed, which can make falling asleep easier. Add colloidal oatmeal to bathwater to help relieve itching.
- Cover burned skin in a thick layer of aloe or moisturizing lotion. Avoid products that contain alcohol or benzocaine, which can irritate the skin or cause an allergic reaction. Do not use benzocaine in children younger than 2 without supervision from a health care professional.
- Give your toddler an antihistamine if her sunburn is itchy and interfering with sleep, and acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease discomfort — ibuprofen has the added benefit of reducing inflammation and potentially speeding recovery.
- At bedtime, dress your toddler in smooth, lightweight clothing like satin or silk. Avoid anything with snaps, buttons, and zippers, which can be scratchy.
- If the burn blisters, don’t break them. This will slow healing and increase the risk of infection. If they break on their own, gently clean the area with mild soap and water, apply an antibacterial cream, and cover with a wet dressing.
- Continue using moisturizing cream if the burn starts to peel after a few days.
Call your pediatrician if your toddler’s sunburn blisters, if she seems generally unwell after the first day, or if she develops symptoms of dehydration, such as lethargy, sunken eyes, a lack of tears or urination, or a dry mouth and lips.
With a little planning and effort, your little ones can enjoy a summer of fresh air, sunshine, swimming pools, and playgrounds. Set a routine and lead by example, and you’ll instill a lifetime habit of sun safety and protection from skin cancer.