Here Comes the Sun

Swimming, playing hide-and-go-seek at the park, picnics or building sandcastles on the beach – some of the best childhood activities are outdoors. To ensure that your child can safely enjoy the beautiful outdoors, good sun protection is a must and should become just as much part of your child’s daily routine as brushing teeth and flossing.


Q: What’s the best way to protect my children from the sun?

A: First of all, don’t save your sunscreen for sunny days. Even on a cloudy day, up to 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays (the rays that cause sunburns, skin damage, cancer and future wrinkles) can pass through the clouds.

Follow these tips daily to stay safe in the sun:

  • Apply enough sunscreen – with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 – to cover all the exposed areas of the body. To give you an idea of how much sunscreen you’ll need, it takes about 1 ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) to cover the exposed areas of the body of an adult – a little less for a child depending on his or her size. A 3- to 4-ounce tube of sunscreen should last for about three whole-body applications for an adult. If you have any bottles of sunscreen left over from previous years, you are probably not using enough. Make “More Is Better” your motto!

  • Apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before heading outdoors; it can take that long to start working.

  • Reapply every two hours and after a dip in the pool, even if you are using a water-resistant product. Sunscreens rub, wash and sweat off easily. If your child is playing sports and sweating a lot, reapply more frequently.

  • Wear protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, lip balm with an SPF and sunglasses. Clothing with a tight weave provides the best protection. Hold your favorite shirt up to the sun to see how much light comes through. For example, a dry, white T-shirt typically offers an SPF of only 7.

  • Stay in the shade during the sun’s peak hours of 10 am to 4pm.


Q: When I get to the sunscreen aisle at the drugstore, I feel overwhelmed. There’s so much choice. How do I pick the right one?

A: Here’s a quick Sunscreen 101:

  • Broad-spectrum is best. Choose a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum (listed on the package) coverage against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) light. These are the rays that can cause sunburn, skin damage, cancer and wrinkles.

  • Go for at least SPF 30. Pick a product that is water-resistant and has a sun protection factor of at least 30. Anything above 30 does not give you that much additional protection. 

  • Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for young children and those with sensitive skin. Look for these ingredients if you have infants or young children (elementary school age or younger), or if you or your kids have sensitive skin or eczema. These ingredients physically block the sun’s rays from penetrating the skin. They are also effective and safe for older children and adults without any skin sensitivities.


Q: We’re taking our 4-month-old son to Hawaii. What’s the best way to protect him from the sun?

A: Babies under 6 months of age should avoid all sun exposure and direct sunlight. Dress your son in lightweight pants and long-sleeved shirts and a hat with a brim. If you are out and about, apply a minimal amount of sunscreen to exposed areas such as the face and back of the hands. Use a sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (a physical block) rather than a chemically-based sunscreen.

Q: I’ve heard that getting enough vitamin D is really important for your health and you can get it through sun exposure. Should my children be out in the sun more?

A: A lack of this important vitamin can cause serious illnesses such as rickets, a disease that weakens bones. Sun exposure is one way of obtaining vitamin D and wearing sunscreen does decrease the skin’s production of it. However, intentional sun exposure is not the best option for your child’s health. Instead, talk to your doctor about adding more vitamin D rich foods to your children’s diet or taking a daily supplement.


Amy Gilliam, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician, dermatologist and pediatric dermatologist at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Dublin, Fremont and Palo Alto centers. Advice is not intended to take the place of an exam or diagnosis by a physician.


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