Dr. Kressly is a board-certified pediatrician and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She has a private practice in pediatrics and adolescent medicine and is Chairman – Department of Pediatrics at Doylestown Hospital in Pennsylvania.
Warm, sunny days beckon us to come outside and play! Being outside promotes exercise and is good for all of us. With a little precaution, you can keep your family safe from the sun’s dangerous rays. Safe sun habits should start early, and by learning more about sun safety you encourage a lifetime of smart sun habits.
The sun is the main cause of skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the USA. Although skin cancer doesn’t usually occur in young children, each year a higher percentage of skin cancers are being reported in adolescents and young adults. It is no longer a disease of the “grandparent” generation. People get skin cancer because they have received too much of the sun’s damaging rays. Your skin remembers each sunburn and suntan year after year. 75% of our lifetime sun exposure happens before we turn 18 years of age. This is primarily because children spend more time outdoors than most adults, especially in the summertime.
Doctors used to tell parents to avoid sunscreen in babies younger than 6 months. That is no longer the case, but it should be used intelligently. Sunscreen should never be used as a first line of defense in babies. The first lines of defense should always be physical defenses/barriers. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and exposure during that time frame should be minimal.
Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight. Shade from a tree, an umbrella or stroller canopy is a good first line of defense. Remember that the sun’s rays can be reflected off sand, concrete, snow and water. Babies should be dressed in clothing that covers the body, such as lightweight pants/shirts and a hat with a large brim that shades the face and covers the top of the ears. As it is not always possible to avoid all sun exposure, sunscreen can be used as a back-up line of defense. Patch test a small area of your baby’s skin, such as a leg, before applying to the entire body. You want to make sure that there isn’t a local rash/skin reaction to the sunscreen prior to applying it liberally. If a rash develops, talk to your pediatrician.
Here are some sunscreen tips:
• Use a sunscreen that is made for children, preferably waterproof and with an SPF of 15 at a minimum. Look for a sunscreen that uses the words “broad spectrum” indicating it will filter out both UVA and UVB rays.
• Apply sunscreen all over the body while naked. You will be less likely to miss parts or have uncovered areas exposed as swimsuits move/clothing shifts during play. Rub sunscreen in well and remember to cover the often-missed tops of feet, ears and backs of the knees.
• Always put on sunscreen 30 minutes prior to going outside – it takes time to work on the skin. Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours while exposed.
• Zinc oxide, a very effective sunblock, can be used as extra protection on the nose, lips, tops of ears, shoulders, etc.
• Consider using a “stick” sunscreen on the face. These look like a large lipstick or small deodorant, and tend to not run into the eyes when children sweat or swim.
• Remember that sunscreens should not be used as a reason to stay in the sun longer.
It is very important to protect babies and children from sunburn. By making sun protection a regular family event, you can teach all of your family how to protect their skin. If your baby gets a sunburn, and is younger than 1 year of age, contact your pediatrician. A severe sunburn is an emergency. Don’t forget the sunglasses to protect those sensitive eyes!
Susan J. Kressly, MD, FAAP
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