How to protect your child’s skin in the sun

September 14, 2023

Sun Safety For Children: How To Protect Your Child’s Skin

At this time of the year, it’s great to get the kids outside and enjoying the sunshine. For parents, it’s also the time of year when we need to think about sun protection for children and which sunscreen is best to use. Protecting your child’s skin in the sun can be hard. But keeping them out of the sun can be even harder!

Childhealthy’s Dr Yiannis asked Dr Bisola Laguda, Consultant Paediatric Dermatologist at the Portland Hospital, for some top tips on how to protect your child’s skin in the sun this summer.

A little girl blowing on a dandelion

Why is it so important to protect a child’s skin from the sun?

Studies indicate that excessive sun exposure during the first 10-20 years of life greatly increases the risk of skin cancer.

Under normal circumstances, children receive three times the annual sun exposure of adults; most of one’s lifetime sun exposure occurs in childhood.

As paediatricians, we play a major role in providing information about sun protection.

What are some top tips for protecting babies from the sun?

Children under 12 months old should not be exposed to direct sunlight.

The British Association of Dermatologists does not recommend the widespread use of sunscreen on infants under six months.

Protection such as shade, clothing and broad-brimmed hats are the best protection for infants, with sunscreen used on small areas of skin.

If you are worried about your babies’ skin reacting to sunscreen, there are many sunscreens made for babies or toddlers that are gentle on sensitive skin.

Test the sunscreen on a small area of your child’s skin to make sure they do not have a reaction.

How can we keep toddlers and children safe in the sun?

Toddlers and children do not need to avoid going out in the sun entirely. However, there are some simple sun safety tips that are worth keeping in mind.

The first line of defence from the sun should always be clothing and shade, with regularly reapplied sunscreen providing extra protection.

When spending time outdoors, dress children in loose-fitting clothing, a broad-brimmed hat that covers the back of the neck and ears, and sunglasses.

For swimming outdoors, UV protective swimwear is available in the UK. Don’t forget to provide shade for prams and buggies, if possible.

When choosing a sunscreen, pick one with high SPF and UVA protection that is fragrance-free, to reduce the risk of allergic reactions.

How about children with dark skin?

Although children with naturally dark skin (skin that rarely or never burns) are at a lower risk of skin cancer than children with fair skin colour, it’s important to keep in mind that all sun exposure carries a risk of skin and eye damage.

What factor sunscreen (SPF) should be used?

Do not rely on sunscreen alone to protect your child from the sun. Make sure they wear suitable clothing and spend time in the shade when the sun is at its hottest.

When buying sunscreen, the label should have:

  • a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to protect against UVB.
  • at least 4-star UVA protection

UVA protection can also be indicated by the letters “UVA” in a circle, which indicates that it meets the EU standard.

Make sure the sunscreen is not past its expiry date. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of 2 to 3 years.

Do not let your child spend any longer in the sun than you would let them without sunscreen.

What do the SPF and star ratings mean?

The sun protection factor, or SPF, is a measure of the amount of ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) protection.

SPFs are rated on a scale of 2 to 50+ based on the level of protection they offer, with 50+ offering the strongest form of UVB protection.

The star rating measures the amount of ultraviolet A radiation (UVA) protection. You should see a star rating of up to 5 stars on UK sunscreens. The higher the star rating, the better.

The letters “UVA” inside a circle is a European marking. This means the UVA protection is at least a third of the SPF value and meets EU recommendations.

Sunscreens that offer both UVA and UVB protection are sometimes called broad spectrum.

When is the best time to apply sunscreen?

If your child will be out in the sun long enough to risk burning, sunscreen needs to be applied twice:

  • 30 minutes before going out
  • just before going out

Sunscreen should be applied to all exposed skin, including the face, neck and ears, and head.

Sunscreen needs to be reapplied liberally and frequently, and according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

This includes applying it straight after being in water, even if it is “water-resistant”, and after towel drying, sweating or when it may have rubbed off.

What are some top tips for applying sunscreen to children?

  • When the UV index is 3 or higher, make sure your child’s skin is protected.
  • It can be easy to miss patches when applying sunscreen. Do not forget to check easy-to-miss areas such as the ears, tops of feet and hands.
  • Get creative with sunscreen application; giving your kids novel ways to apply their sunscreen will make it more of a fun activity rather than a chore.
  • Trial different types of sunscreens and see which works best for your child. You may find they are more receptive to a sunscreen spray or applying it themselves with a sunscreen stick.
  • If you are going to the beach or the pool, you’ll likely find it much easier to get your child to apply sunscreen before you leave for the day, or else they are likely to want to run straight into the water! This also allows the sunscreen to fully dry and be as effective as possible (application 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure is best).
  • Distracting children whilst applying their sunscreen could be a useful way of getting them protected. Something as simple as putting on their favourite TV programme or song could give you the opportunity to apply sunscreen.
  • Applying a second coat of sunscreen about 15 minutes after the first helps cover any patches you may have missed the first time.
  • Try writing a word as you squeeze the sunscreen onto their skin, maybe one letter on each limb, torso etc.
  • Make sure they spend time in the shade when the sun is hottest, between 11am and 3pm.
  • Cover them up with suitable clothing, sun hats and sunglasses.

What is the best way to treat sunburn?

Children can get sunburnt in as little as ten minutes, and depending on the severity, it can take a few days or weeks to heal. Treatment aims to help your child feel more comfortable.

  • Give your child plenty of water to drink so that they are well hydrated.
  • Cool your child’s skin with cold compresses or a cool bath.
  • If required, give your child simple pain relief medicine, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
  • Prevent further UV damage by keeping your child indoors.

Signs of severe sunburn include blisters, swollen skin and severe pain. If your child has any of these signs, take them to see your GP.

Sometimes children can get heatstroke, along with sunburn. If your child’s sunburn is accompanied by fever, headaches or nausea and vomiting, take them to the GP.

Is sun exposure good for a child’s Vitamin D levels?

While some sun exposure is necessary to produce vitamin D, extended and deliberate sun exposure without any form of sun protection when the UV index is 3 or above is not recommended, even for those diagnosed with vitamin D deficiency.

If you are concerned about your child’s vitamin D levels, or you think they are at risk of vitamin D deficiency, you can contact one of our paediatricians for advice and guidance about children and vitamins.

Thank you to Dr Bisola Laguda, Consultant Paediatric Dermatologist at the Portland Hospital, for giving us some great advice for staying safe in the sun this summer.

If you’re travelling or going abroad with children this year, read our advice in What to take with you when you travel with children to make sure you have everything you need.

Wishing you a happy and healthy holiday from all of us at Childhealthy.


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