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Sunscreen Safety Tips

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

Most parents and caregivers understand the importance of applying sunscreen to their children to protect them against sunburn. However, a couple of questions may still linger such as, what is a safe age for a child to start using sunscreen, and what ingredients should I look for?

Most children get 50% to 80% of their lifetime sun exposure before the age of 18, so it’s important that parents and caregivers teach them how to use sunscreen safely. With the right precautions, you can help reduce your child’s chance of developing skin cancer later in life.

The sun produces 3 types of ultraviolet rays. When these rays reach the skin, they cause tanning, burning, and other skin, and eye damage.

The three types of ultraviolet rays are: UVA, UVB, UVC.

- UVA rays cause skin aging and wrinkling and contribute to skin cancer, such as melanoma. Because UVA rays pass effortlessly through the ozone layer (the protective layer of atmosphere, or shield, surrounding the earth), they make up the majority of our sun exposure. Beware of tanning beds because they use UVA rays as well as UVB rays. A UVA tan does not help protect the skin from further sun damage; it merely produces color and a false sense of protection from the sun.

- UVB rays are also dangerous, causing sunburns, cataracts (clouding of the eye lens), and effects on the immune system. They also contribute to skin cancer. Melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, is thought to be associated with severe UVB sunburns that occur before the age of 20. Most UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, but enough of these rays pass through to cause serious damage.

- UVC rays are the most dangerous, but fortunately, these rays are blocked by the ozone layer and don’t reach the earth.

When Can I Start Applying Sunscreen To My Child?

For Babies younger than 6 months: Use sunscreen on small areas of the body, such as the face and the backs of the hands, if protective clothing and shade are not available. Because infants have thinner skin and underdeveloped melanin, their skin burns more easily than that of older kids. But sunscreen should not be applied to babies under 6 months of age, so they absolutely must be kept out of the sun whenever possible. If your infant must be in the sun, dress him or her in clothing that covers the body, including hats with wide brims to shadow the face. Use an umbrella to create shade.

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 the eyes and hands clean with a damp cloth. If the sunscreen irritates her skin, try a different brand or try a sunscreen stick or sunscreen or sun-block with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. If a rash develops, talk with your child’s doctor. To avoid possible skin allergy, don’t use sunscreens with PABA.

For kids age 6 months and older, select an SPF of 30 or higher to prevent both sunburn and tanning. Choose a sunscreen that states on the label that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays (referred to as “broad-spectrum” sunscreen.) If your child has sensitive skin, look for a product with the active ingredient titanium dioxide (a chemical-free block).

For sunscreen to be affective it must be applied correctly and you must use a high enough SPF to do block the rays for a longer periods of time.

1. Apply sunscreen about 15 to 30 minutes before kids go outside so that a good layer of protection can form. Don’t forget about lips, hands, ears, feet, shoulders, and behind the neck. Lift up bathing suit straps and apply sunscreen underneath them (in case the straps shift as a child moves).

2. Don’t try to stretch out a bottle of sunscreen; apply it generously.

3. Reapply sunscreen often, approximately every 2 hours, as recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. Reapply after a child has been sweating or swimming.

4. Apply a waterproof sunscreen if kids will be around water or swimming. Water reflects and intensifies the sun’s rays, so kids need protection that lasts. Waterproof sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water, and some are also sweat- and rub-proof. But regardless of the waterproof label, be sure to reapply sunscreen when kids come out of the water.

5. Remember that you can get sunburn even on cloudy days. Also, UV rays can bounce back from water, sand, snow, and concrete so make sure you’re protected.

Keep in mind that every child needs extra sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that all kids — regardless of their skin tone — wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Although dark skin has more protective melanin and tans more easily than it burns, remember that tanning is also a sign of sun damage. Dark-skinned kids also can develop painful sunburns.

The skin is not the only part of the body that is affected by too much sun exposure. The sun can also damage the eyes. Even 1 day in the sun can result in a burned cornea (the outermost, clear membrane layer of the eye). Cumulative exposure can lead to cataracts (clouding of the eye lens, which leads to blurred vision) later in life. The best way to protect eyes is to wear sunglasses.

Not all sunglasses provide the same level of ultraviolet protection; darkened plastic or glass lenses without special UV filters just trick the eyes into a false sense of safety. Purchase sunglasses with labels ensuring that they provide 100% UV protection.

But not all kids enjoy wearing sunglasses, especially the first few times. To encourage them to wear them, let kids select a style they like — many manufacturers make fun, multicolored frames or ones embossed with cartoon characters. And don’t forget that kids want to be like grown-ups. If you wear sunglasses regularly, your kids may be willing to follow your example. Providing sunglasses early in childhood will encourage the habit of wearing them in the future.

Some Medications May Increase Sun Sensitivity

Some medications increase the skin’s sensitivity to UV rays. As a result, even kids with skin that tends not to burn easily can develop a severe sunburn in just minutes when taking certain medications. Fair-skinned kids, of course, are even more vulnerable.

Ask your pediatrician or pharmacist if any prescription (especially antibiotics and acne medications) and over-the-counter medications your child is taking can increase sun sensitivity. If so, always take extra sun precautions. The best protection is simply covering up or staying indoors; even sunscreen can’t always protect skin from sun sensitivity caused by medications.

Choosing a Sunscreen

Use a sunscreen that says “broad-spectrum” on the label – that means it will screen out both UVB and UVA rays. Use a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15. The higher the SPF, the more UVB protection the sunscreen has.

Look for the new UVA “star” rating system on the label. One star is low UVA protection. Two stars is medium protection. Three stars is high protection.

Four stars is the highest UVA protection available in an over-the-counter sunscreen product. For sensitive areas of the body, such as the nose, cheeks, tops of the ears, and the shoulders, choose a

sunscreen or sun-block with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. While these products usually stay visible on the skin even after you rub them in, some now come in fun colors that kids enjoy.

Treating Sunburn

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends these tips for treating children with sunburns.

Your baby’s skin: soft, sweet-smelling, vulnerable.  You notice that when you’re diapering:  irritation develops easily; a soothing cream clears it up like magic.

Young skin heals faster than older skin, but it is also less able to protect itself from injury, including injury from the sun.

Babies under six months of age should never be exposed to the sun.  Babies older than six months should be protected from the sun, and wear UV-blocking sunglasses to protect their eyes.  However, if your child is sunburned:

1.     For a baby under one year old, sunburn should be treated as an emergency.  Call your doctor immediately.

2.     For a child one year or older, call your doctor if there is severe pain, blistering, lethargy, or fever over 101 F (38.3 C).

3.     Sunburn can cause dehydration.  Give your child water or juice to replace body fluids, especially if your child is not urinating regularly.

4.     Give Acetominophen if your child’s temperature is above 101 F.

5.     Baths in clear, tepid water may cool the skin.

6.     Light moisturizing lotion may sooth the skin, but do not rub it in.  If touching the skin is painful, don’t use lotion.

7.     Dabbing on plain calamine lotion may help, but don’t use one with an added antihistamine.

8.     Do not apply alcohol, which can overcool the skin.

9.     Do not use any medicated cream — hydrocortisone, benzocaine — unless your baby’s doctor tells you to.

10.   Keep your child out of the sun entirely until the sunburn heals.

Familiarize yourself with the rules of sun protection, and make sure that no matter where you child goes — daycare, play dates, nursery school, your child is protected from sunburn.

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