Outdoor play is essential for children, but parents need to protect their children from harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays. And kids need more than just sunscreen to keep them safe, according to Dr. Wesley King Galen, dermatologist at T.C. Thompson Children’s Hospital at Erlanger.
Many parents assume that children wearing sun protection will be safe for hours on end, but unfortunately that is not always the case.
Protecting Your Children from the Sun This Summer
By Christine Brackett Gordon
“With the amount of outdoor sports and activities children are raking in between 60-80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure before 18,” states Dr. Galen, “ and that leaves them at risk for developing cancer.”
To understand the sun’s harmful effects, it’s important to understand that sunlight includes three types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC.
• UVA rays penetrate the skin contributing to aging of the skin and wrinkles. They are also an underlying cause of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. “These harmful rays are predominately found in tanning beds and booths,” says Dr. Galen.
• UVB rays can cause sunburn, cataracts, and immune system damage, as well as skin cancer. Melanoma is thought to be associated with severe UVB burns before age 20. Sunburns in early childhood are also associated with an increased number of moles which can lead to atypical moles and melanoma.
• UVC rays, the most dangerous, are largely blocked by the ozone layer and rarely reach the earth.
For children, unprotected sun exposure is dangerous, especially for those with fair complexions (blond hair, blue eyes), freckles or moles, and a family history of skin cancer. “Wearing sun protection doesn’t make it safe for children to spend large periods of time in the sun,” says Dr. Galen. “If your child gets one bad sunburn, his chances of getting melanoma double. Melanoma, which is primarily seen in adults over 50, is now being seen in children as young as 10.”
Protect Your Children
With the right precautions, kids can safely play in the sun. First, avoid sun exposure for prolonged periods of time. “Children should be kept out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is the strongest,” advises Dr. Galen, who often shares an important rule with her young patients: “If your shadow is shorter than you are, it’s time to get out of the sun.” Apply generous amounts of sunscreen – even on cloudy, cool, overcast days. Clouds don’t filter out UV rays and provide a false sense of protection.
Dr. Galen also suggests covering up with protective clothing, such as long-sleeve shirts and hats with a tight weave and wide brim. Several companies, such as Columbia Sportswear, offer high-UPF clothing lines made of special fabric that works to prevent UV rays from reaching the skin. Special detergents and additives that contain UV absorbers, such as Rit SunGuard, can also be used during your regular laundry cycle to augment the UPF level of many fabrics. For example, washing a cotton t-shirt with a UV absorber can raise the UPF protection from 5 to 30 and can last up to 20 washes.
It’s also important to keep babies younger than six months old away from direct sunlight, since babies have thinner skin that burns more easily. If your baby must be in the sun, Dr. Galen advises you to dress him or her in clothing that covers the body. Move your baby to the shade or under a tree, an umbrella, or a stroller canopy.
Most importantly, use the right degree of sunscreen and apply it correctly. All children – regardless of their skin tone – should wear sunscreen with a SPF of 15 or higher. Be sure to:
• Use sunscreen whenever your child will be in the sun.
• Apply sunscreen approximately 30 minutes before going outside so that a good layer of protection can form. Don’t forget to protect lips, ears, feet, shoulders, and behind the neck. Lift up bathing suit straps and apply sunscreen underneath them.
• Don’t try to stretch out a bottle of sunscreen; apply the sunscreen generously and reapply every 2 to 3 hours. Be sure to reapply after your child has been sweating or swimming.
• Apply waterproof sunscreen if your child will be around water or swimming. Water reflects and intensifies the sun’s rays, so kids need protection that lasts. Waterproof sunscreen may last up to 80 minutes in the water, and some are also sweat and rub proof.
How to Care For Your Child’s Sunburn
The best way to care for your child’s sunburn is to treat the symptoms immediately to prevent further problems. Typical symptoms include redness, swelling, pain, blisters, and sometimes fever, chills, and weakness. Several days after the burn, the skin may become itchy and peel.
Most sunburns do not require medical attention, but Dr. Galen recommends a number of ways you can relieve symptoms.
• Avoid repeated exposure to the sun until the burn heals.
• Take a cool (not cold) bath or use a cool compress on the sunburned area.
• Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for discomfort.
• Apply pure aloe vera gel – available at most pharmacies or taken directly from within the leaves of the plant – to any sunburned area. It’s an excellent way of relieving sunburn pain and helping skin heal quicker.
• Apply topical moisturizers, aloe gel, hydrocortisone cream, or a topical pain reliever to the sunburned area. Avoid products that contain Benzocaine or Benadryl because of the possibility of skin irritation or allergy.
• To avoid infection tell your child not to scratch, pop, or squeeze the blisters, which can become easily infected and can result in scarring.
Call your physician if the sunburn causes severe pain or widespread blistering or if your child experiences symptoms of heat stress, such as fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, or faintness.
Be Sun Safe Yourself
“Be a good role model for your children,” Dr. Galen suggests. “Wearing sunscreen and limiting your time in the sun not only reduces your risk of becoming sunburned, but it also reduces your child’s risk of exposure to the damaging effects of the sun.”
Wesley King Galen, M.D., is a dermatologist and practices with T. C. Thompson Children’s Hospital at Erlanger. For more information and to schedule an appointment, call (423) 778-5693.