It's 10 a.m. on a summer day. Do you know where your children are?
If they're outside, they ought to be in the shade. And if they aren't in the shade, they ought to be wearing sunscreen or be otherwise protected from the sun's rays.
Because the research is fairly blunt: Sunburns during childhood are linked to skin cancer in adulthood.
The dark side of the sun
Sunny days can be wonderful. The birds are singing, flowers are bright and buzzing with bees, and the neighbors are firing up the grill.
But there's a metaphorical cloud hanging over even the clearest sunlit day, and it's called ultraviolet (UV) rays. The sun produces two damaging types: UVA and UVB rays.
These invisible rays are responsible for such short-term damage as sunburn, skin rashes, injury to cells and tissue, dehydration, and fever. Long term, they can cause skin cancer, cataracts and premature wrinkles.
And most sun damage occurs in childhood, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
All of this makes it hard to overemphasize the importance of protecting your kids from the sun.
Reduce the rays
You can protect your child—and yourself—from the sun's damage in two ways: Block the UV rays, and limit exposure to them.
You can limit exposure to the sun's rays by:
- Keeping your family out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when rays are the strongest.
- Encouraging your child to play in the shade during those hours.
- Scheduling outdoor activities before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
- Shielding your child from the sun's rays with protective clothing and sunscreen.
- Ensuring that anyone caring for your child is aware of the above.
Cover up, slather up
The best sun protection for your child is clothing, according to the AAP.
Look for long-sleeved shirts and long pants in a tightly woven fabric. (A tight weave won't let as much light through it as a loose one.) Cotton clothing can be both protective and cool, says the AAP.
The AAP also recommends wearing a wide-brimmed hat and protective sunglasses.
Skin that isn't covered by clothing should be covered by sunscreen.
Unlike clothing, however, a sunscreen can't literally block the sun from reaching your skin. Instead, sunscreens work by absorbing or reflecting most of the sun's UV rays. And some sunscreens offer more protection than others.
To get the most protection from sunscreen:
Read the label. Look for a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) rating of at least 30, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Broad-spectrum means the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays. An SPF of 15 offers protection against 93% of UVB radiation. An SPF of 30 blocks 97%.
Sunscreen comes in lotion, cream, gel, wax stick, spray and ointment form. All of these work fine, according to the AAD. But gels might sting around the eyes.
Slather it on. Slop on the sunscreen liberally about a half hour before going out. Don't forget to cover the nose, ears, backs of the knees and tops of the feet. Reapply every two hours and after swimming or excessive sweating. And since clouds don't block UV rays, protect yourself with sunscreen even on cloudy days.
Use it sparingly on babies. The AAP recommends using only minimal amounts of sunscreen on children younger than 6 months old. It's especially important to keep babies out of the sun and to dress them in protective clothing. But, if these options aren't available, using a small amount of sunscreen on small areas of the body, such as the face and the back of the hands, is acceptable, the AAP reports.
When to call your doctor
Any change in skin color is a sign of sun damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A sunburn on a child younger than 1 year old, however, is a signal to call your pediatrician. And a sunburn on any child that causes blistering, pain or fever warrants a call to the doctor too.