Everything You Need to Know to Protect Your Child From the Sun

Everything You Need to Know to Protect Your Child From the Sun

The sun's harmful UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer and premature aging.

The bright, yellow dwarf star at the center of our solar system sustains life on earth, but it also unleashes massive destruction on its human inhabitants in the form of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which does a number on our skin and the DNA in its cells. Your kid's skin is practically brand new, and it requires some serious attention when it comes to sun exposure. Here's everything you need to know about keeping your sweet babies safe from the sun while they play in the back yard. 

What is Ultraviolet Radiation?

Ultraviolet rays on the spectrum.

Ultraviolet radiation is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes visible light. Its wavelengths are shorter than the wavelengths of visible light, which makes UV radiation invisible to the naked eye—but not to the naked skin. 

The wavelengths of UV radiation are classified as UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVA radiation has the longest wavelengths, and UVB rays have the second-longest. UVC rays are much shorter and get absorbed by the ozone layer before reaching earth.

Excessive UV radiation damages the skin’s cellular DNA, producing genetic mutations that can cause skin cancer and visible aging.

UVA Rays

Ninety-five percent of the UV radiation that reaches Earth is UVA radiation. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply than UVB rays, and they’re the culprit behind visibly aging skin and wrinkles. Recently, scientists learned that UVA rays damage keratinocytes, which are skin cells in the basal layer of the skin, where most skin cancers occur. 

UVA rays are 30 to 50 times more prevalent than UVB rays, and they don’t change in intensity during the day. This means that they’re bombarding us during all daylight hours, even penetrating clouds and glass. 

UVB Rays

UVB rays don’t penetrate the skin as deeply as UVA rays. They’re responsible for the skin turning red when it’s sunburned. UVB rays damage the superficial layers of the skin, and they play a key role in the development of skin cancer. 

UVB rays vary in intensity based on the season, your location, and the time of day. In the U.S., UVB rays are strongest between 10am and 4pm, April through October. But with lengthy exposure, they can cause sunburn and skin damage any time of day, year-round. 

Risks of UV Exposure in Childhood

Sunscreen is essential for children when they're outside.

According to a study published in the journal Progress in Biophysics & Molecular Biology, early exposure to UVA and UVB rays affect young skin more intensely than older skin. Childhood exposure to damaging rays manifests later in adulthood, with an increased risk of premature aging, wrinkles, eye damage including cataracts, and skin cancers. According to the Centers for Disease control, just a few bad sunburns can increase your child’s risk of skin cancer later on.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and while only three percent of cases of melanoma are found in people under the age of 20, it can occur in children and adolescents, especially those who:

  • Have pale skin.
  • Don’t tan.
  • Have a large number of freckles or moles.
  • Have red hair.
  • Have blue eyes.
  • Have a family history of melanoma.

However, children of all skin colors need to wear sunscreen. Even if they don’t get sunburned, the damaging rays of the sun are still penetrating their skin layers and potentially damaging their DNA. It’s a dangerous myth that darker-skinned people are protected from sun damage and skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. In fact, people with darker skin are at a higher risk for developing acral lentiginous melanoma, or ALM, one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer.

How Suncreen Works

Sunscreen contains a variety of organic and inorganic chemicals. Minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide physically block UV rays by reflecting them back into the universe before they can penetrate your skin. Molecules of organic chemicals like avobenzone and oxybenzone absorb UV radiation through their chemical bonds, which slowly break down and release heat.

The effectiveness of sunscreen is measured by the sun protection factor, or SPF. The SPF indicates how long it will take UVB rays to redden the skin compared to how long it would take without the sunscreen. For example, if you use SPF 15, it will take your skin 15 times longer to turn red than it would without sunscreen. SFP 15 blocks out 93 percent of the UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97 percent, and SPF 50 blocks 98 percent. Anything above SPF 50 offers very little more in the way of added protection. 

There is no current standard for measuring UVA blocking abilities, but sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum” and those that specifically list UVA/UVB protection will protect against both types of rays. Choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen is crucial for optimal protection.

Is Sunscreen Safe for Children?

Sunscreen absorbs or reflects the sun's harmful UV rays.

Currently, 17 active ingredients have been approved by the FDA for use in sunscreen. Most sunscreens contain a combination of organic and inorganic chemicals.

Oxybenzone, an organic chemical used in a large number of sunscreen, has been found to disrupt hormones and cause allergic reactions in rodents, according to the Environmental Working Group. But the Skin Cancer Foundation stresses that a human would have to apply sunscreen daily for 277 years to get the dose that the rats in that study received and that recent studies have found no change in hormonal levels in people using sunscreens containing oxybenzone.

Still, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the Swedish Research Council has found that children under the age of two years haven’t fully developed the enzymes that are believed to break down oxybenzone and therefore should not be slathered with sunscreens containing it. Oxybenzone is also a culprit in the poor health of coral reefs, as is the sunscreen ingredient octinoxate, so if you’re heading to the ocean, scientists beg you not to use sunscreens with these chemicals in them.

The bottom line on sunscreen safety in children is that sunscreen is far, far safer for your child than excessive sun exposure, even if the sunscreen contains oxybenzone.  

How to Apply Sunscreen to Your Child

The CDC recommends slathering your child generously with sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside. That’s because sunscreens are made with a water emulsion, and the water has to evaporate off the skin in order to leave the chemical film behind. The right amount of sunscreen to apply is about an ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass. 

Make sure to get the sunscreen on junior’s nose, ears, lips, and the tops of the feet. Reapply the sunscreen after your kid gets wet, even if the sunscreen is waterproof. Otherwise, reapply every two hours. 

For babies under six months old, follow the directions on the package, or seek the advice of your pediatrician. Opt for sunscreen specially formulated for babies, which contain gentler ingredients that aren’t as likely to irritate the skin. Keep in mind that the best way to keep babies safe from the sun is to keep babies out of the sun. But if there’s no shade to be had, slather the sunscreen over every exposed surface—including the head, if Baby is bald.

If your child has a reaction to the sunscreen, such as a rash, stop using it, and try another brand. 

Should You Apply Sunscreen Under Your Child's Clothes?

The sun’s UV radiation can penetrate fabric—some more than others. Ultraviolet Protection Factor, or UPF, is an indication of what fraction of UV rays can penetrate a particular fabric. For example, clothes with a UPF of 50 allow 1/50th of UV radiation to reach your skin. The lighter and more lightweight a fabric, the lower its UPF. A white T-shirt has a UPF of around 7, while a black T-shirt has a UPF of around 10. A long-sleeved, dark denim shirt has a UPF of 1,700. 

The darker and more tightly woven the fabric, the better the sun protection. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends holding clothes up to the light. If you can see through them, then UV rays can penetrate them. 

Your best bet is to slather your naked kid from head to toe, wait a few minutes for the sunscreen to soak into the skin, and then put clothes on. 

My Top Sunscreen Picks

Sunscreen is bloody expensive, but then, so are skin cancer treatment and anti-wrinkle creams. Still, there’s no need to spend 20 bucks on eight ounces of fancy-schmancy sunscreen. Here are my top picks for affordable, effective sunscreens. 

Sunscreen for Babies

When Ruby was a baby, I used this Banana Boat Baby Sunscreen, which offers broad-spectrum, SPF 50 protection. It’s waterproof and hypoallergenic, and its active ingredients are the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are non-toxic. This sunscreen is Skin Cancer Foundation-recommended.

I like Aveeno sunscreen for my own self—I use their SPF 30 waterproof, moisturizing lotion on my face—and Aveeno makes a waterproof baby sunscreen for sensitive skin. It’s pretty pricey compared to Banana Boat, but it provides broad-spectrum SFP 50 protection while moisturizing baby’s sensitive skin without stinging or irritating. It’s got the same mineral-based active ingredients as Banana Boat Baby.

When choosing a baby sunscreen, don’t just look for the word “baby” on the bottle. Look at the ingredients list, because some baby sunscreens contain oxybenzone, which isn’t recommended for use on children under two. 

Sunscreen for Older Kids

Sunscreen comes in lotion, spray, and stick form. I much prefer the spray because it’s faster and easier to apply, but experts stress that spray sunscreens leave a lot more room for error, because you really need to spray the everlovin’ crap out of your skin to get the recommended amount—about an ounce—of sunscreen on. 

To find out how long you need to spray for recommended coverage, I sprayed Ruby’s sunscreen into a one-ounce shot glass, and it took 44 seconds to fill it up. So that’s about how long it should take you to spray your child.

If you opt for spray sunscreen, I probably don’t have to tell you that it’s best not to spray your kid in the face with it. Spray it into your hand instead, and rub it on the face, neck, and ears.

Spray Sunscreen

I currently use Banana Boat Sport with SPF 50 for Ruby. It’s broad spectrum, it doesn’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, and it’s recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation. The active ingredients are avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene.

Stick Sunscreen

If you use spray sunscreen, or even if you use lotion, consider a stick sunscreen for your child’s face. Botanical Clear Zinc Sport Stick offers broad spectrum, SPF 30 protection, and it’s sweat and water resistant. It contains shea butter and beeswax to help prevent dryness and chafing. It’s chemical-free, mineral-based, and non-greasy, and it absorbs quickly.

Lotion Sunscreen

If you’re looking for lotion, Banana Boat Sport Lotion with SPF 50 has the same active ingredients as the spray.

Lip Protection

To protect your little one’s lips without having to put bitter-tasting sunscreen on them, try Sun Bum Lip Balm. The active ingredients are avobenzone, homosalate, oxtinoxate, and octisalate. It’s SPF 30, and it’s paraben-, PABA-, gluten- and petrochemical-free. It contains soothing coconut oil, aloe vera, and vitamin E for soft, sweet lips you just wanna kiss and kiss. 

A Quick Note About Combination Sunscreen-Insect Repellent Products

Some sunscreens contain insect repellent, and some insect repellents contain sunscreen, purportedly for convenience. However, these combination products aren’t recommended, because you should apply sunscreen more frequently than mosquito repellent, and you certainly don’t want to over-apply repellant. I cover all of this in my essential guide to mosquito repellents

Other Ways to Protect Your Child from the Sun

A hat and sunglasses offer added protection from the harmful UV rays of the sun.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends a multi-pronged approach to protecting your kids from the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays. One important thing to remember is that cool and cloudy describe the weather, not the strength of the sun’s rays. Apply sunscreen to your child even on cloudy and cool days. Here are some other ways to protect your child from the sun:

Keep ‘em inside between 10 and 2. This is when the sun’s UVB rays are the strongest and most harmful. If being indoors isn’t an option, try to convince your child to wear a lightweight long-sleeve shirt and a lightweight pair of pants. That would never fly with Ruby, so the next tip is to seek shade between 10 and 2. If there’s no shade, well, go nuts with the sunscreen, and reapply it religiously every two hours or after the kiddo gets wet.

Put a hat on. A hat offers shade for the face, scalp, ears, and neck, and kids in hats are adorable. If your kid will wear a hat in addition to sunscreen, it’ll offer better protection. 

Wear sunglasses. Protecting your child’s eyes from the sun can help prevent cataracts later on in life. Sunglasses that wrap around the head and block both UVA and UVB rays are best. 

Go inside. If you notice your child looking a little pink, take her out of the sun. This is an indication of skin damage, and since it takes up to 12 hours for the skin to show the full effects of a sunburn, pretty in pink today may become rock lobster tomorrow.

What to Do if Your Child Gets a Sunburn

Repeated sunburns in childhood increase the risk of skin cancer later on.

Don’t beat yourself up. Sunburns happen. If your child ends up with one, here’s what Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends you do:

  • For soothing relief, put him in a cool bath, or use a cool compress on the burned skin. Don’t use ice.
  • Slather the burn with 100 percent aloe vera gel, which should be kept chilled. That’ll feel really good.
  • Give your child a dose of ibuprofen, which will reduce pain and curb inflammation.
  • If blisters form, don’t break them. (You don't have to tell me twice.)
  • Keep you child out of the sun until the burn is healed.
  • Have junior drink extra water for a few days to stave off dehydration and promote healing.
  • If your child shows signs of heat stress along with the sunburn, including fever, chills, nausea, dehydration, or feeling faint, call your pediatrician.

In Summary

Sun bad. Sunscreen good. 

Do you have anything else to add? Feel free to do so in the comments!

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