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Fun in the Sun: Keep Your Family Safe

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Warm, sunny days are wonderful. It's great to exercise outside, and the sun feels good on your skin. But what feels good can harm you and your family. Read on for information from the American Academy of Pediatrics about how to keep your family safe from the sun’s harmful rays.

The sun and skin cancer

The sun gives energy to all living things on earth, but it can also harm us. Its ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage skin and eyes and cause skin cancer. All skin cancers are harmful and some, especially malignant melanoma, can be deadly.

One-quarter of our lifetime sun exposure happens during childhood and adolescence. Since children spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in the summer, it's important to protect them from the sun.

Research shows that 1 or more blistering sunburns as a child or teen can increase the risk of melanoma skin cancer later in life. Sunburns can also be very painful. Too much sun exposure can cause other problems, too, such as

  • Dehydration (loss of fluids) and fever

  • Damage to skin, such as changes in color and wrinkles

  • Cataracts (clouding of eye lens) of the eye

  • Damage to the body’s immune system

Sun safety tips

It’s good for children and adults to spend time playing and exercising outdoors, and it’s important to do so safely. Follow these simple rules to protect your family from sunburns now and from skin cancer later in life.

  • Keep babies younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight. Find shade under a tree, an umbrella, or the stroller canopy.

  • When possible, dress yourself and your children in cool, comfortable clothing that covers the body, such as lightweight cotton pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hats.

  • Select clothes made with a tight weave; they protect better than clothes with a looser weave. If you’re not sure how tight a fabric’s weave is, hold it up to see how much light shines through. The less light, the better. Or you can look for protective clothing labeled with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF).

  • Wear a hat with an all-around 3-inch brim to shield the face, ears, and back of the neck.

  • Limit your sun exposure between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm when UV rays are strongest.

  • Wear sunglasses with at least 99% UV protection. Look for child-sized sunglasses with UV protection for your child.

  • Use sunscreen.

  • Make sure everyone in your family knows how to protect his or her skin and eyes. Remember to set a good example by practicing sun safety yourself.

Sunscreen

Sunscreen can help protect the skin from sunburn and some skin cancers but only if used correctly. Keep in mind that sunscreen should be used for sun protection, not as a reason to stay in the sun longer.

How to pick sunscreen

  • Use a sunscreen that says “broad-spectrum” on the label; that means it will screen out both UVB and UVA rays.

  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 (up to SPF 50). An SPF of 15 or 30 should be fine for most people. More research studies are needed to test if sunscreen with more than SPF 50 offers any extra protection.

  • If possible, avoid the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone because of concerns about mild hormonal properties. Remember, though, that it’s important to take steps to prevent sunburn, so using any sunscreen is better than not using sunscreen at all.

  • For sensitive areas of the body, such as the nose, cheeks, tops of the ears, and shoulders, choose a sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These products may stay visible on the skin even after you rub them in, and some come in fun colors that children enjoy.

How to apply sunscreen

  • Use enough sunscreen to cover all exposed areas, especially the face, nose, ears, feet, hands, and even backs of the knees. Rub it in well.

  • Put sunscreen on 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. It needs time to absorb into the skin.

  • Use sunscreen any time you or your child spend time outdoors. Remember that you can get sunburn even on cloudy days because up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can get through the clouds. Also, UV rays can bounce back from water, sand, snow, and concrete, so make sure you’re protected.

  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours and after swimming, sweating, or drying off with a towel. Because most people use too little sunscreen, make sure to apply a generous amount.

Sunscreen for babies

  • For babies younger than 6 months. Use sunscreen on small areas of the body, such as the face, if protective clothing and shade are not available.

  • For babies older than 6 months. Apply to all areas of the body, but be careful around the eyes. If your baby rubs sunscreen into her eyes, wipe her eyes and hands clean with a damp cloth. If the sunscreen irritates her skin, try a different brand or sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. If a rash develops, talk with your child’s doctor.

Sunburns

When to call the doctor

If your baby is younger than 1 year and gets sunburn, call your baby’s doctor right away. For older children, call your child’s doctor if there is blistering, pain, or fever.

How to soothe sunburn

Here are 5 ways to relieve discomfort from mild sunburn.

  • Give your child water or 100% fruit juice to replace lost fluids.

  • Use cool water to help your child’s skin feel better.

  • Give your child pain medicine to relieve painful sunburns. (For a baby 6 months or younger, give acetaminophen. For a child older than 6 months, give either acetaminophen or ibuprofen.)

  • Only use medicated lotions if your child’s doctor says it is OK.

  • Keep your child out of the sun until the sunburn is fully healed.

Sun myths

  • Myth: Only people with light skin can get sunburn.

  • Fact: People with pale skin or light hair need to be more careful in the sun because they sunburn more easily compared to people with darker skin. However, most people can sunburn no matter what their skin color is. Everyone needs to take steps to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays.

  • Myth: A suntan is good for you.

  • Fact: A “base tan” does not protect you from getting sunburn. In fact, it may increase the chance you’ll get sunburn because you may think that you can stay out in the sun longer. A tan is actually a sign of skin damage.

  • Myth: Only adults can get skin cancer, so putting sunscreen on children is not necessary.

  • Fact: While most of the people who get skin cancer are older, children, teens, and young adults can get it too. Also, too many sunburns and too much sun exposure over the years can cause not only skin cancer but also skin wrinkles and cataracts of the eye. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, there are more than 3.5 million new cases of skin cancer each year.

Is indoor tanning safe for teens?

Many teens, especially girls and young women, go to tanning salons because a tan makes them feel more attractive and healthy. But tanning at a salon is dangerous! Like the natural sun, tanning beds give off UV rays that can cause sunburns and skin cancer. Tanning indoors is not safe for anyone—teens or adults!

Sunless tanning lotions, sprays, and airbrush tanning booths are popular too. These products contain a chemical that darkens the skin. The tan usually lasts for several days. However, all sunless tanning products can cause side effects such as skin rashes and irritation. They should also be kept away from the eyes, nose, and mouth. Most of these products do not include sunscreen, so skin is not protected from the real sun. Anyone using a sunless tanner must also use a sunscreen.

Copyright © 2008, American Academy of Pediatrics. All Rights Reserved.