Summer just isn’t as fun without time in the sun. But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the UV rays can damage unprotected skin in fewer than 15 minutes of exposure. And with a 2005 study estimating that approximately 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, protecting children’s skin is a parental priority.
“You would not send your child to play out in the cold or snow without proper clothing,” explains Sandy Johnson, M.D., a dermatologist in Fort Smith, Ark. and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. “The same rules apply when going out in the sun.”
It’s also important to start healthy habits early because sun damage is cumulative throughout your lifetime, according to Hoover, Ala.-based dermatologist Elizabeth Martin, M.D.
“Skin is like an elephant; it never forgets,” she says.
There are countless myths about sun protection. At the top of Johnson’s list is the ability to tan.
“A tan is your body trying to protect itself and therefore is bad. It is like your body telling you that your meat is being cooked,” she says.
Find your child’s freckles cute? It’s actually a sign of sun damage, says Martin: “Any change in skin color is sun damage. Period.”
Even indirect sunlight can cause significant damage. Martin explains that cloudy days won’t provide protection from harmful UV rays and warns that families should be especially careful when bringing babies to the beach. Even if they’re under a tent, the light can reflect off the water and sand.
There are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens are absorbed by the skin to degrade the sun’s UV rays, while physical sunscreens, also referred to as physical block, sit on top of the skin and act as a physical barrier.
For parents concerned about chemical exposure, Johnson recommends a physical sunscreen with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which she considers the safest ingredients for all ages.
Not all sunscreens are created equally. And while parents don’t have to read scientific studies to find the best one, they should be vigilant.
“Be a label reader,” says Martin.
You’ll want to look for a “broad spectrum” sunscreen, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, can also be confusing. Don’t go for less than
SPF 30, says Martin, and be aware that the ratings can be misleading. For example, an SPF 60 is not twice as much protection as an SPF 30.
“The additional amount of protection you get is minimal,” she notes, adding that it often gives parents a false sense of security.
That means it’s critical to apply and reapply at the appropriate times. A good rule of thumb according to Johnson is to apply the sunscreen 30 minutes before any sun exposure. (That means slathering it on before you get to the pool.)
Reapply every two hours — and more often if your child is especially active or will be in water.
In these cases, it’s best to look for a water-resistant sunscreen.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently tightened its regulations on the “water resistant” label and now requires manufactures to explicitly indicate how long that resistance lasts (either 40 or 80 minutes). Parents should reapply according to the product’s label.
When applying sunscreen, make sure to do so liberally. Johnson suggests a brush-on block to ensure all areas of the body are protected. Some areas Martin sees parents often miss: the lips, which need full coverage like all other parts, and the area around the eyes under swimming goggles.
Sunscreen is only part of the protection puzzle. Also be sure to cover kids in sun-protective clothing. Look for the UPF label, indicating ultraviolet protection factor, for pieces marketed as sun protective. Johnson recommends a rating of at least UPF 30. (Note that a standard T-shirt, especially a white one, offers minimal protection.)
Other clothing musts include a wide-brimmed hat with neck guard, long sleeves when possible and sunglasses.
Sunglasses are often considered more accessory than necessity, but according to the Vision Center at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, children’s eyes can be damaged by UV rays just like their skin — and their retinas are much more susceptible to UV rays than adults.
The best way to reduce sun damage, says Johnson, is to avoid direct sunlight all together. She suggests avoiding the peak hours between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm, and seeking shade when possible.
Like all child protection, practicing sun safety always starts with parents.
“They need to remember, because kids don’t,” says Martin.
Distributed by MCT Information Services