For many, sun-kissed bronze skin is a symbol of good health. And that may be true if the criteria means your child is spending more time outside than playing video games on the couch. However, sun exposure – especially at an early age – can result in long-term damage and health concerns. With each time blistering sunburn, the chances of a child developing skin cancer in their lifetime doubles. Skin protection is key, with sunscreen being a second line of defense beyond protective clothing and shelter. Parents and caregivers alike know the importance of protecting a child’s skin from the harmful rays of the sun, but which sunscreens are safest for your child?
Sunscreen serves as a physical barrier to the sun’s harmful rays, protecting us from dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays by either reflecting the light away from our bodies or absorbing the rays before they cause us harm. As a rule, the higher the SPF – the sun protection factor – the more effective the sunscreen, but only with regard to the cancer-causing ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. SPF has little role in protecting us against the ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that cause long-tern skin damage and wrinkles. With this information, manufacturers set out to create broad- or multi-spectrum sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB rays. When looking for an effective sunscreen for yourself and your child, start by seeking out a broad-spectrum formula with an SPF of at least 30. That means that if you can only stay in the sun for 10 minutes before burning, a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 will allow you to be in the sun for ten times that amount – provided that the sunscreen is applied generously and continuously throughout the day or after water play or sweating.
When it comes to babies, the best thing to do is to keep them out of the sun, at least until they are six months of age. Because baby’s skin has not formed its protective layer of melanin, they can develop a nasty sunburn in a matter of minutes. Remember, the sun reflects off of glass so baby’s skin can be compromised even if she is sitting in a car seat for a ride on a sunny day. If baby is going to be in the sun, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, reapplying liberally every two to three hours or as needed. Once a child is at least 6 months old, parents often take their children to the park or beach for a family outing. Sunscreen, hats, and UV-blocking shirts are still a must. Even when babies become toddlers and start grade school, parents must remain vigilant in applying, and re-applying sunscreen onto young skin.
While most child-friendly broad-spectrum sunscreens offer good levels of protection, not all sunscreens are alike. To determine what is best for your child, read labels. Pediatric dermatologists recommend mineral-based sunscreens in the 30 to 50 SPF range. Avoid products that contain Retinyl Palmitate (vitamin A), which can cause severe reactions such as peeling, redness and itching; and oxybenzone. Instead look for products with zinc oxide contents of 15-20%, or 3% of avobenzone. Waterproof formulae are recommended. Avoid any spray-on products – direct application of a lotion ensures your child’s skin is fully covered. Also avoid aerosol sunscreens, whose high-alcohol content has been known to irritate the skin and lungs, and can be absorbed into the blood.
A Parent’s Role in Sun Protection
If you and your children enjoy fun in the sun, precaution is key. Protective clothing is essential – especially UV-blocking fabrics, broad-brimmed hats and sunglasses to shield sensitive eyes. To ensure your sunscreen is safe, read the label and start with a dab a few hours before heading out to ensure there are no reactions or rashes. If you have questions or concerns about caring for your child’s skin, enlist the support of a pediatric or family dermatologist. In Miami, that doctor is Dr. Ana Duarte, and her family-friendly team at the Children’s Skin Center. Contact the Children’s Skin Center by calling (305) 669-6555 or, request an appointment to ensure your family’s skin is protected and healthy!