Keeping kids safe in the sun
Many parents may assume that skin cancer is an adult disease – but exposing your child to the sun’s powerful rays makes all the difference to their risk of developing skin cancer in later life. So what steps should you take to protect them?
One child in five here in the US today will go on to develop some form of skin cancer and it can take just one case of severe blistering under the age of 18 years to double the risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. We can’t expect our kids to take responsibility for their own sun protection – it’s up to us as parents to do all we can to make sure they don’t get burnt. But the facts are in the figures: around 25% of kids under 6 have had at least one painful sunburn, and the figure rises to 50% in kids under 13.
The dark side of the sun…
We all need some exposure to the sun – it stimulates the body to produce vitamin D, which we don’t easily acquire through food. But prolonged exposure is a no-no – not only can it cause skin cancer, it can also damage eyesight and weaken the immune system. It’s invisible UV rays that are harmful: they may well give the sun kissed glow we all love but even if your kids don’t burn, that tan is a sign of damage. Kids with very fair complexions are most vulnerable but don’t imagine that a darker complexion gives your child any more natural protection: they’re still at risk. Having a family history of cancer or a tendency towards moles increases that risk.
Banning the burn
Obviously it isn’t realistic to keep your kids indoors – they need to get out to run and play. Wrapping up is unrealistic too, if you live in a hot climate. The key is to take precautions – up to 80% of lifetime UV exposure occurs by the time you’re 18, and 10 minutes is all it takes for unprotected skin to burn. Sunscreen and shade remain your child’s first line of defence...
- Seek the shade Keep kids out of direct sunlight when it’s at its strongest (10am-4pm) and don’t expose babies to the sun at all. In practice this can be difficult – up to 85% of the sun’s rays are reflected off concrete, sand or snow – so don’t rely on it alone. Teach older kids the motto: ‘No shadow, seek shade’ – if they’re not too good at checking the time of day, it’ll give them more of an idea about when the sun is most harmful.
- Dress for success If you can, dress your child in light, loose-fitting tops with long sleeves, in breathable fabrics such as cotton. Dark colors are best as they reflect the sun; open-weave fabrics or nylon and other synthetics often permit light through so these aren’t as protective. If your child is swimming don’t rely on a light-colored t-shirt to protect her – even if it’s close-weave fabric pale colors can become translucent when wet.
- Hats on Get your a wide-brimmed hat that shades her face and also protects her ears and the back of her neck from the sun. A strap is a useful option to keep it firmly in place on your baby or toddler! Baseball caps aren’t ideal – they leave the neck and ears exposed – unless it’s one that has a French Legionnaire-style flap at the back.
- Eyes front Encourage kids to wear sunglasses that block UV rays.
Spray sunscreens are great for wriggling toddlers but with tweens and older kids it often pays to stress how the sun will bring out even more of the freckles they hate, as well as give them wrinkles!
Be keen to screen
- Choose the right sunscreen Don’t go below SPF 30 with your kids – this means that if they normally burn after 10 minutes, they’ll have 30 times their natural protection – so, 30 x 10 minutes: 300 minutes (five hours). Make sure your choice is broad spectrum – this means it offers protection against UVA and UVB rays, both of which can burn. New continuous sprays are a fantastic innovation for parents whose younger children don’t have the patience to sit still for sunscreen application, but sun sticks are the best option for faces since there’s less chance it’ll get in their eyes when you’re applying it.
- Apply it properly Put sunscreen on your child a good half-hour before exposure. Use enough too: from a good tablespoon upwards depending on your child’s size. Although the SPF should give you some indication as to how long your child will be protected, reapply sunscreen every two to three hours just to be on the safe side. Always reapply if your child has been swimming, even if it claims to be water resistant.
- Cover the bases Be sure to put sunscreen on the less obvious places: the tops of your child’s ears; her face, including her temples, hairline if her hair is pulled back or her parting if she has one; the back of her neck; and the tops of her feet and toes.
Studies indicate that most people apply less than half of the amount of sunscreen required to provide the level of protection indicated on the packaging
Feeling hot, hot, hot…
Sunburn isn’t the only risk your child faces on a hot summer’s day. Heat exhaustion can develop if her body isn’t able to cool down fast enough. Signs include weakness and feeling excessively hot and the condition can come on very quickly. Make sure your child knows to tell you if she’s too hot and has a headache, or if she feels dizzy and sick. If she does, get her indoors to a cool place, give her plenty of water and call your physician for advice.
Any time you’re out in the heat with your child, remind her to drink plenty of water to replace any that’s lost in sweat, especially if she’s running around or playing sports. A good tip is to buy her a cool looking water bottle she can wear on a belt or strap, or secure to her bike.
When you’re not there
If your child will be at summer camp this year, make sure the camp organizers and counselors take sun protection seriously and are aware of how to tackle heat exhaustion if it occurs. Bear in mind that some camps prohibit counselors from applying sunscreen so if she’s at day camp, take the added precaution of applying plenty before your child leaves home. In these instances, ‘long life’ options, which protect for up to eight hours, are a good option.
Drum it into your child that she needs to reapply her sunscreen if camp counselors can’t, especially if she’s swimming. Alternately, provide a close-weave dark-colored t-shirt for her to wear in the pool or on any beach field trips. An excellent option for fair-skinned children is UV-protective sun and swimwear.
The best way you can get over the message that sun protection is vital is to practice what you preach – kids learn by example, so make sure your child knows that you take it seriously and let her see how careful you are about avoiding the sun and using sunscreen.