The risk for skin damage and skin cancer is directly related to the cumulative sun exposure a person experiences throughout his or her lifetime, and the risks are additive over time. So, during summertime, while the rays are at their strongest and most dangerous, parents must be even more vigilant about sun protection. With some helpful tips and good common sense, your children can safely enjoy the warm weather while steering clear of the harmful effects of the sun.
Every sunburn adds up. That’s why skin protection is imperative for children during the summertime when exposure to dangerous UV rays is more common. It’s important to note that most sun damage occurs in early childhood, which can lead to skin cancer later in life. Reasons for this include the fact that children have a thinner outer layer of epidermis, their body surface is larger related to their overall mass, and they have less melanin, which makes them more susceptible to burns and the harmful effects of the sun.
This is especially true for young children less than 2 years old. Parents often ask me about protecting their babies from the sun, but fail to pay as much attention when their kids get older. However, it’s important for parents to remind even their older children about the importance of protecting their skin.
There are short- and long-term effects of sun exposure for children of which parents should be aware. Some of the short-term effects include burns and the potential for heat exhaustion – or worse, heat stroke. The more severe, long-term effects of exposure to the sun can include DNA damage, which can in turn lead to cancer or pre-cancerous conditions.
Below are some tips for keeping your children safe from the sun this summer:
1. Remember the sun is at its highest and UV rays are their strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so be sure to use the following tips during those times.
2. Babies under 6 months of age should be kept away from sunlight altogether. If you need to be out, place your baby in a stroller with a canopy that covers every possible entry point for the sun.
3. Children with fair skin are at high risk for sun damage. Take precautions to ensure that protection (sunscreen and outerwear) is maximized. And remember, although fair-skinned children are more at risk for skin damage, everyone can get skin cancer from UV exposure.
4. Utilize preventative measures for children to avoid direct contact with the sun such as umbrellas, hats with brims, sunglasses and clothes that offer UV protection.
5. Keep children covered in light cotton clothes with a tight weave that do not allow for the sun to come into contact with the skin.
6. Apply sunscreen liberally 15 to 30 minutes before going out to allow for absorption. Be sure to cover all extremities such as the face, nose, ears, back, chest and legs.
7. If swimming, reapply every time your children exit the water to ensure constant protection. Also remember that UV rays can bounce off the water, so make sure your children’s entire bodies are protected.
8. If your children are exercising, be sure to regularly apply sunscreen since it can lose effectiveness due to sweating. In addition, they should consider wearing lightweight, loose-fitting clothing to prevent getting overheated and plan their exercise early or late in the day when sun and heat exposure are lower.
9. When choosing a sunscreen for your child, be sure to look for three key things on the label:
• Protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
• An SPF of at least 15 or 30. An SPF of higher than 50 ironically does not provide that much extra coverage.
• Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as an ingredient.
10. Keep children hydrated. Children tend to sweat less and produce more body heat than adults, which places them at greater risk for dehydration. Encourage drink breaks every 20 minutes for active children to replace lost bodily fluids. Fluids that contain salt are strongly recommended.
11. Treat burns with a cold compress and place on areas that are warm or painful. Avoid petroleum-based products – which tend to insulate heat – in favor of those with aloe vera.
Heat Stroke vs. Exhaustion
When discussing the issue of how best to protect your children from the sun, it’s important to talk about the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke and how to address each.
Some signs of heat exhaustion may include dizziness, light-headedness, nausea, weakness or light vomiting. If you notice any of these signs, immediately stop your child from exercising, get her or him out of the sun and into a cool, air-conditioned area and have them drink plenty of fluids. A child with heat exhaustion will have a moistness to the skin and a body temperature not above 101 degrees. The child should be monitored carefully to see if professional medical attention is needed.
Heat stroke, on the other hand, is quite serious and requires immediate medical attention. Heat stroke manifests itself with a high body temperature (e.g. 104 degrees), changes in thinking or confusion, seizures and dry skin. Immediately call 911 for any cases involving heat stroke.
Good common sense goes a long way, as does the following practical advice: protect your children’s skin, keep them hydrated and watch for the signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. It can help this be the safest summer yet for your kids. They’ll thank you later.