For kids to have the most fun in the sun, keep their skin safe

Vital Signs Summer 2023 - Sun Safety
For kids to have the most fun in the sun, keep their skin safe
Photo: iStock

With summer upon us, it is important for families to learn about and practice safe skin behaviors, particularly when it comes to children. Even one bad sunburn in childhood can increase the risk of melanoma in adulthood.

Seeking shade is the first and most effective line of defense against getting sunburned, says Carol Cheng, MD, a UCLA Health pediatric dermatologist. Second is to use sun-protective clothing, such as wide-brimmed hats, long sleeve clothing, rash guards and sunglasses. The third line of defense is applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater.

Dr. Cheng notes that for children under six months of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding direct sunlight and providing shade. Ideally, sunscreen use should be avoided in babies younger than 6 months old. However, if this is not possible, a mineral-based sunscreen can be applied in areas that are unable to be shaded or covered by clothing.

Dr. Cheng recommends using sunscreens that includes either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for infants and younger children, which minimize irritation on sensitive skin. “We recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater,” she says. “Our general recommendation is to reapply every two hours of continuous time in the sun. If your child goes in the water or is sweating, use a water-resistant sunscreen and reapply after being in the water.”

Dr. Cheng notes that data from the American Academy of Dermatology show that sunscreen is protective against developing skin cancer, and that even one blistering sunburn in childhood can double the risk of melanoma in adulthood.

If a child does get sunburned, apply a cold compress or give them a cool bath, Dr. Cheng says. Aloe vera can also be helpful. Over-the counter hydrocortisone 1% cream can also ease red, itchy or tender skin and help with inflammation. If the sunburn is really painful or widespread, consult the child’s pediatrician about whether or not taking ibuprofen is appropriate. If there is blistering, consult your child’s pediatrician or a dermatologist.

Heat rash can also be an issue during the summer months. Heat rash happens when the sweat ducts or sweat glands are blocked. It typically presents with small, itchy, pink to-red bumps on the skin, especially in areas where the skin is occluded. For example, on a hot day, a baby sitting in the car seat during a long drive might develop a heat rash on their back, because they’re sweating in that area for a long time.

 To prevent heat rash on hot days, try to avoid intense heat for prolonged periods of time and aim for cooler places or spaces that are air conditioned, Dr. Cheng suggests. Consider bringing a portable fan to prevent overheating in strollers. Dressing a child in loose-fitting, lightweight and breathable clothing, such as ones made of cotton, is also helpful. When considering outdoor activities, try to plan them during the cooler part of the day, and not between 10 am and 2 pm, when the sun tends to be the hottest. At home, keep the air conditioner or a fan on, if possible, to prevent heat rash.