Sun Protection 101

Sun Protection 101

Did you know that chronic sun exposure in childhood increases an individual’s risk of skin cancer? Teresa Wright, MD, Chief of Pediatric Dermatology at Le Bonheur, says it’s important to take several steps to protect your child’s skin from excessive sun exposure. She also explains what to look for in a sunscreen, how to best apply it and the safety of spray sunscreens.

Why is sun protection important for my child?

Because children spend more time playing outdoors, a significant amount of lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18. There is overwhelming evidence that chronic sun exposure and sunburns (particularly in childhood) increase an individual’s lifetime risk of all forms of skin cancer, including melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer).  More than one million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States and roughly one in five Americans will develop some form of skin cancer during their lifetime. In 2009, more than 8,000 Americans died from melanoma.

How do I protect my child from excessive sun exposure?

Proper sun protection has several components:

  1. Avoid deliberate sun bathing and indoor tanning.
  2. Seek shade whenever possible (especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.).
  3. Wear protective gear, including clothing, a wide brimmed hat and UV protective sunglasses.
  4. Use broad spectrum sunscreen regularly and correctly.

What should I look for in a sunscreen?

Look for a product with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. Products marketed for children will often have an SPF of at least 50. Look for a product with “Broad Spectrum” coverage, meaning it protects against both ultraviolet A and B rays from the sun. 

In general, the active ingredients in sunscreens are either “physical blockers” (e.g., zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) or “chemical blockers” (e.g., oxybenzone, avobenzone and ecamsule, to name a few).   For younger children and children with very sensitive skin, it’s best to select products containing physical blockers.  Also, look for products that are “sweat and/or water resistant”.

How should I apply sunscreen?

For maximum protection, sunscreen must be used correctly.  Do not skimp!  It should be applied generously at least 15 minutes before going outdoors.  It takes approximately one ounce (six teaspoons) of sunscreen to adequately cover an adult of average size.  Sunscreen should be reapplied at least every two hours, but more often when swimming and sweating.

Can I apply sunscreen to my baby?

Infants under the age of 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Sunscreens containing physical blockers can be applied to small areas of exposed skin, such as the face or backs of the hands.  Products that come in a stick are especially easy to apply to delicate areas, such as the nose, cheeks, and ears.

Are spray sunscreens safe?

Recently, there have been concerns regarding the safety of spray sunscreens due to the possibility of inhaling the product during application.  Until the FDA has conducted a more thorough investigation, many organizations are recommending avoiding the use of spray sunscreens on children.  If you have nothing else available or decide to continue using these products, please do not spray the product directly on your child’s skin.  Instead, spray it into your hand, well away from the child’s face, and rub it onto the skin.

What else can I do to protect my child?

Remember to set a good example by protecting yourself from excessive sun exposure as well.  Many of us grew up in a time when sunburn was simply accepted as part of spending time outdoors.  Now that we have better information about the harmful effects of excessive sun exposure, we should make every effort to protect ourselves and our children as much as possible. 


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