Safety for Children: What are the risks of sun exposure?
Studies suggest that the majority of UV damage suffered by our skin occurs before the age of 20, and burning at a tender age can lead to much more serious problems later in life.
Nobody wants to spend the entire summer indoors, and some sunshine can be good for us, helping the body to create vitamin D and giving a feeling of general wellbeing. Adults and children alike enjoy taking walks in the sunshine and take pleasure in outdoors summer activities.
However, all too often we allow our kids to race around without adequate protection. We don’t realise that our oversight may have serious consequences; that they might, as adults, develop any number of skin problems, including skin cancer.
While many people associate a tan with looking healthy, it’s actually a sign that our skin is already harmed by UV radiation and is trying to defend itself against further damage.
More than 70,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the UK every year, and while the disease can also occur on parts of the body not exposed to sunlight, extensive sun exposure is thought to be responsible for the vast majority of cases.
In as many as four out of five occurrences, it’s a preventable disease.
How to protect your child
The best way to stop the sun harming your child is through a combination of clothing, shade, sunscreen, and sun avoidance.
Babies should never be exposed to strong sunlight as their skin is sensitive and they risk overheating. Sunburn on a baby should be seen by a doctor as a matter of priority. Sunscreen should therefore be only minimally necessary for babies, as they shouldn’t be in the sun in the first place.
Long sleeved, light and loose fitting tops made from breathable fabrics like cotton offer protection while allowing the skin to stay cool. Open weaved fabrics or nylon and other synthetics are not such a good choice as they often permit light through. Equally important are hats that not only shade the face but also protect the ears and the back of the neck from the sun. Baseball caps aren’t ideal as they leave the neck and ears exposed.
Try wherever possible to keep your kids out of the sun during the summer. This isn’t always easy but small measures like setting up play areas in the shade can help. Take particular care to make sure they’re not in the sun between 11am and 3pm, when the sun is at its strongest.
Sunscreens can offer protection against the two main types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation that damage the skin: UVA and UVB.
‘High factor’ means the sunscreen has a high level of SPF, which stands for ‘Sun Protection Factor’. Children need an SPF of 30 or more to block harmful UVB radiation.
The term ‘broad spectrum’ indicates that a sunscreen offers protection against both UVA and UVB, as opposed to just UVB. When you buy sunscreen containing UVA protection in the UK, you may notice a UVA star rating on the packaging. The stars range from 0 to 5. Choosing one for your child with a high number of UVA stars is best.
A broad spectrum formula with an SPF of at least 30 and at a minimum of four UVA stars is ideal. You will need to apply it liberally to all exposed areas of skin.
A water resistant sunscreen is useful when you’re by the pool or on the beach. However, don’t forget that it still needs to be reapplied frequently, and immediately after bathing or swimming.
Several factors influence how effective your child’s sunscreen is. One of these is the amount you apply. Studies have found that most people put on less than half of the amount required to provide the level of protection indicated on the packaging. Studies also show that sites such as the back and sides of the neck, temples and ears are commonly missed.
It’s also easy to forget to reapply it often as is necessary. It needs to go on half an hour before your child starts playing in the sun and again just after they go out. This will help to make sure there are no missed patches. Don’t forget to reapply it at least every two hours.
Sunscreen is vital for protecting your child’s skin but should be used in conjunction with clothing and shade rather than as the sole means of defence.
Don’t forget that children learn by example too, so practise what you preach and make sure you protect yourself in the sun too!