Summer Skin Care for Kids

Last Editorial Review: 6/30/2005

Dark-colored, protective clothing, followed by sun blocks and sunscreens, are the best ways to protect your kids from sunburn.

By Jeanie Lerche Davis
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson

The sun's rays are risky for all of us, above all for infants, toddlers, children, and teens. Early exposure to too much sun and childhood sunburns can lead to skin cancer over time. By protecting your child's skin, especially in the summer, you can help prevent sunburn -- and greatly cut skin cancer risk later on.

In sunny Miami, where it's summertime most of the time, the sun lovers' safety rules are critical, says Elizabeth Alvarez Connelly, MD, professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.

She and her 1-year-old daughter put in lots of beach time. "I was so proud ? before she turned 6 months, she wore her hat at the beach ? the perfect dermatologist's daughter," Connelly tells WebMD. "Then at about 6 months, she learned how to take it off!"

That's risky, because sunburn is risky. Too much of the sun's ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) rays burn the skin, which over time can lead to basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer. Severe sunburn in a child younger than age 18 raises the risk of melanoma later in life. Sunburns can also age the skin over time, bringing on wrinkles, liver spots, and white splotches.

"We've found if you teach kids early on to protect their skin, they'll continue as they get older," says Adelaide Hebert, MD, director of pediatric dermatology at The University of Texas Medical School in Houston (another near-tropical city with plenty of sunshine).

At Galveston Beach, in backyard pools, and at sports fields, "it's easiest to get smaller kids to wear protective clothing," Hebert tells WebMD. Everything's colorful these days, which makes it fun to wear protective shirts. "The little bitty kids love to wear those surf suits and swim shirts. My son puts his shirt on, a little bit of sunscreen, and he's out in the pool in minutes."

When it comes to older kids and teens, sunscreen and cover-ups are just as important, even though getting that tanned look is as popular as ever. But, adds Hebert, tanning booths are strictly taboo. "It's true, a tan is a healthy look. The only safe way is a sprayed-on 'mystic tan' or one applied with a lotion, such as Coppertone, Clinique, Ban de Soleil. There are lots of self-tanners out there. Suntanning and tanning booths are just not safe."

Rules for Smart Summer Skin Care

Some basic sun protection rules will help you keep your children safe.

Rule No. 1: Stay inside or in the shade between 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. Midday, when the sun's rays are strongest, babies and children should stay indoors, or out of the sun at least. Even on cloudy, hazy days, protect against the sun. "There's more risk of sunburn at the beach, because of water reflection and wind," adds Hebert.

Rule No. 2: All children are at risk. While pale kids are most likely to burn, darker-skinned children can also burn if they stay in the sun too long.

Rule No. 3: Dress your kids in protective clothing. This, even more than sunscreen, is the best weapon against too much sun. "Babies younger than 1 year, before they are mobile, need to get as much sun protection as possible from their clothing -- long cotton pants, long sleeves," says Connelly.

  • "You want to decrease the surface area that is exposed to the sun. Sunscreens will work to prevent sunburn -- but you have to reapply them every 30 minutes. It's not easy to get kids to come in from the water that often." More clothing tips:
  • Sun-protective swimwear is an excellent option. The colorful two-piece swimsuits and one-piece "wet suits" are made for all kids and covers up to elbows and knees, providing the equivalent of UVF 50+ protection. The swimwear is made from lightweight, tightly woven synthetic that is still "breathable." These are available online, in sports stores, and stores like Target.
  • Cotton T-shirts also prevent sunburn, but not if the T-shirt is white. White allows the most sun penetration. Bright or dark-colored clothing, such as blues, reds, greens, and yellows (including socks) offer more protection than pale colors. Also, when white T-shirts get wet, they offer virtually no protection, says Hebert.
  • Sunguard is a chemical dye that can be applied to clothes (like summer whites) in the washing machine, says Connelly. The "dye" drenches clothes in a UPF (ultraviolet protective factor) of 50+ that remains on the fabric for up to 20 washes. Both Sunguard and RIT clothing dyes are made by the same company. Find them in grocery stores like Publix and retail stores like Wal-Mart, Target, and Eckerd.

Rule No. 4: Use sun block (such as zinc oxide) and children's sunscreens. These products are the next line of defense to prevent sunburn. Some tips:

  • Some parents worry whether sunscreen is safe for babies. "It's not that an infant's skin is more permeable. It can't absorb any more chemicals from sunscreen than an adult's can," Connelly tells WebMD. "It's their skin-to-body ratio that puts infants at risk. The question has been, if you coat them with sunscreen, are those chemicals going to overwhelm them?"

    Using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide eliminates that concern. "Those are the two ingredients we use on a baby's bum ? so I would say they're safe enough for the rest of the baby, too!" she adds. Two products that contain just those two main ingredients are Blue Lizard Baby and Total Block Cotz-SPF58. Another brand, Bullfrog, contains both chemical protection and sun blockers -- and comes in a mist form.

  • Don't be afraid to use children's sunscreen on babies -- in small doses. "If you're going for a walk, and the baby's feet are exposed, it's appropriate to put sunscreen on them so they don't get burned. It's better than not protecting them at all."
  • Don't forget to prevent sunburn on lips. "Sunsticks" and many lip balms offer sunscreen protection.
  • Read sunscreen labels closely for reapplication advice. Even waterproof lotions must be reapplied frequently, Hebert notes. Also, once wet skin gets toweled dry, sunscreen must be reapplied.
  • Look for sun-protection products your kids will enjoy. "There are spray and purple sunscreens that are fun for kids," says Hebert. In general, she adds, dermatologists advise an SPF of 30 or higher to prevent sunburn.

Rule No. 5: Shade is essential to prevent sunburn. At the beach, on a walk, at the sports field, the rule of thumb is "try to always keep yourself and your children covered," says Connelly. Your "shady" shopping list:

  • A big beach umbrella.
  • A stroller with a canopy (not always easy to find, but worth looking for).
  • Wide-brimmed hats and caps (with the bill pointing forward).
  • Solar tents. The little ones are perfect for a napping infant, but not big enough for anyone else to get inside. Bigger tents are available for family use.
  • UV protection sunglasses. Glasses that are close-fitting, and protect against UVA and UVB rays are best. Wraparound lenses are best, because they block 5% more rays. Protective styles are available for all ages, even infants.

Most of all, use the sunscreens you buy -- don't just keep them on the shelf.

Even sun tanners can be part of overall sun protection for your kids as well as yourself. "The key is that an artificial tan does not innately provide protection -- but it may have protection added in. Read labels closely," says Hebert.

Published May 2005.

SOURCES: Elizabeth Alvarez Connelly, MD, professor of dermatology and pediatrics, Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami. Adelaide Hebert, MD, director of pediatric dermatology, University of Texas Medical School, Houston. WebMD: "Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer." American Academy of Pediatrics. American Academy of Dermatology.

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