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  • Dr Bisola Laguda

Protecting Your Child’s Skin In The Sun

Warm sunny days are fun for children and adults alike, but it is important to do so safely.

During this time of the year, we are often faced with considerations about sun protection and which sunscreen to use.

Did you know that childhood is a particularly vulnerable time for excessive sun exposure on the skin?

Studies indicate that excessive sun exposure during the first 10-20 years of life greatly increases the risk of skin cancer.

Under normal circumstances, children receive three times the annual sun exposure of adults; most of one's lifetime sun exposure occurs in childhood.

Sun Protection for Babies

Children under 12 months should not be exposed to direct sun.

The British Association of Dermatologists does not recommend the widespread use of sunscreen on infants under six months. Protection such as shade, clothing, and broad-brimmed hats are the best protection for infants, with a sunscreen used on small areas of skin.

If you are worried about your babies’ skin reacting to sunscreen, there are many sunscreens made for babies or toddlers that are gentle on sensitive skin. First, test the sunscreen on a small area of your child’s skin to make sure they do not have a reaction.

Sun Protection Advice for Toddlers and Children

Toddlers and children do not need to avoid going out in the sun entirely, however, there are some simple sun safety tips that are worth keeping in mind.

The first line of defence from the sun should always be clothing and shade, with regularly reapplied sunscreen providing extra protection.

When spending time outdoors, dress children in loose-fitting clothing, a broad-brimmed hat that covers the back of the neck and ears, and sunglasses. For swimming outdoors, UV protective swimwear is available in the UK. Do not forget to provide shade for prams and buggies, if possible.

When choosing a sunscreen, pick one with high SPF and UVA protection that is fragrance-free, to reduce the risk of allergic reactions.

Sun Protection for Dark Skin

Although children with naturally dark skin (skin that rarely or never burns) are at a lower risk of skin cancer than children with fair skin colour, it is important to keep in mind that all sun exposure carries a risk of skin and eye damage.

Practical Tips for Applying Sunscreen To Children

  • It can be easy to miss patches when applying sunscreen. Do not forget to check easy-to-miss areas such as the ears, tops of feet and hands

  • When the UV index is 3 or higher, make sure your child’s skin is protected

  • Get creative with sunscreen application; giving your kids novel ways to apply their sunscreen will make it more of a fun activity rather than a chore

  • Trial different types of sunscreens and see which works best for your child. You may find they are more receptive to a sunscreen spray or applying it themselves with a sunscreen stick

  • If you are going to the beach or the pool, you will likely find it much easier to get your child to apply sunscreen before you leave for the day, or else they are likely to want to run straight into the water! This also allows the sunscreen to fully dry and be as effective as possible (application 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure is best)

  • Distracting children whilst applying their sunscreen could be a useful way of getting them protected. Something as simple as putting on their favourite TV programme or song could give you the opportunity to apply sunscreen

  • Applying a second coat of sunscreen about 15 minutes after the first helps cover any patches you may have missed the first time

  • Try writing a word as you squeeze the sunscreen onto their skin, maybe one letter on each limb, torso etc

  • Spend time in the shade between 11 am and 3 pm

  • Make sure you never burn. Lead by example and ensure they see you putting suncream on yourself also

  • Cover up with suitable clothing and sunglasses

Treatment for Sunburn

Children can get sunburnt in as little as ten minutes, and depending on the severity, it can take a few days or weeks to heal. The following treatment aims to help your child feel more comfortable.

  • Give your child plenty of water to drink so that they are well hydrated

  • Cool your child’s skin with cold compresses or a cool bath

  • If required, give your child simple pain relief medicine, such as Paracetamol or Ibuprofen

  • Prevent further UV damage by keeping your child indoors

Signs of severe sunburn include blisters, swollen skin and severe pain. If your child has any of these signs, take them to see your GP.

Sometimes children can get heatstroke, along with sunburn. If your child’s sunburn is accompanied by fever, headaches or nausea and vomiting, take them to the GP.

What factor sunscreen (SPF) should I use?

Do not rely on sunscreen alone to protect yourself from the sun. Wear suitable clothing and spend time in the shade when the suns at its hottest.

When buying sunscreen, the label should have:

  • a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to protect against UVB.

  • at least 4-star UVA protection

UVA protection can also be indicated by the letters "UVA" in a circle, which indicates that it meets the EU standard.

Make sure the sunscreen is not past its expiry date. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of 2 to 3 years.

Do not spend any longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen.

What are the SPF and star rating?

The sun protection factor, or SPF, is a measure of the amount of ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) protection. SPFs are rated on a scale of 2 to 50+ based on the level of protection they offer, with 50+ offering the strongest form of UVB protection.

The star rating measures the amount of ultraviolet A radiation (UVA) protection. You should see a star rating of up to 5 stars on UK sunscreens. The higher the star rating, the better.

The letters "UVA" inside a circle is a European marking. This means the UVA protection is at least a third of the SPF value and meets EU recommendations.

Sunscreens that offer both UVA and UVB protection are sometimes called broad spectrum.

How to apply sunscreen

If you plan to be out in the sun long enough to risk burning, sunscreen needs to be applied twice:

  • 30 minutes before going out

  • just before going out

Sunscreen should be applied to all exposed skin, including the face, neck and ears, and head. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied liberally and frequently, and according to the manufacturer's instructions. This includes applying it straight after being in the water, even if it is "water-resistant", and after towel drying, sweating or when it may have rubbed off.

Vitamin D and sun

While some sun exposure is necessary to produce vitamin D, extended and deliberate sun exposure without any form of sun protection when the UV index is 3 or above is not recommended, even for those diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency. If you are concerned about your child’s vitamin D levels, or you think they are at risk of vitamin D deficiency, you should talk to your GP.

Contributed and written by

Dr Bisola Laguda

Consultant Paediatric Dermatologist

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