Protecting your family while out in the sunshine

Playing and spending time outdoors is such an important part of childhood but it is crucial that children are protected and safe in the sun.

Increased vulnerability
Compared with adults, children’s skin is much more vulnerable to the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.

Children’s skin, especially up to the age of 3 years, has lower concentrations of the protective skin pigment melanin. Melanin is a pigment that gives skin, eyes, and hair their colour. It also provides some protection against skin damage from the sun and is responsible for tanning.

The outer layer of children’s skin is also thinner than those of adults. This allows UV radiation to penetrate more deeply through the layers of the skin.

Childhood: a critical time for sun protection
Childhood is a ‘critical period’ during which skin cancer risk can be increased in later life. Research has indicated that having ‘ever’ experienced a sunburn in childhood, nearly doubles the risk of melanoma of the skin in adulthood.

It all adds up
Sun damage is cumulative. Preventing overexposure to UV radiation and sunburn in childhood reduces the risk of sun damage, and skin cancer in later life.

Enjoying the sun safely
The British Association of Dermatologists advise keeping ‘babies and young children out of direct sunlight’.

Babies and young children should stay in the shade as much as possible. Although shade can reduce UV radiation by 50% or more, other forms of sun protection should also be used to shield against exposure from reflected UV radiation, from surfaces such as concrete or sand.

In other words, it is possible to get sunburn under an umbrella if you have no additional protection.

Protect your child’s skin with:

  • Loose-fitting comfortable clothing made from tightly-woven fabrics
  • A broad brimmed or legionnaire style hat to protect the face, back of the neck and ears. Soft hats are available for babies that allow freedom of movement and easily crease or crumple if they rest their head.
  • Child-size UV protective sunglasses.

Remember shade for prams and pushchairs. When ‘out and about’ ensure children do not get overheated and drink plenty of fluids.

If possible, plan your day’s activities in advance to reduce your children’s exposure to the sun, particularly 11am and 3pm when UV rays are strongest. Remember use of sunscreens should not be regarded as a means of increasing the duration of sun exposure.

Sunscreens should not be your main method of sun protection – remember to seek shade and wear sun protective clothing.

Sunscreens are not usually recommended for babies younger than 6 months as they have very absorptive skin. Infants and babies less than 6 months should avoid direct sunlight. Cover with appropriate protective clothing and a hat. Apply sunscreen on small exposed areas only when sun avoidance is impossible.

For babies and children older than 6 months, apply a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) 50+, with high UVA protection (and ideally water-resistant sunscreen particularly if swimming) on any exposed areas of skin, according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Reapply generously and evenly every two hours. Physical (inorganic) sunscreens that reflect UV radiation away from the skin (e.g. containing ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide), or sunscreens specifically made for babies or toddlers may cause less irritation to sensitive skin. More detailed information about SPF, UVA protection and correct quantities to use here.

Tips to remember:

  • Most people burn because they do not reapply sunscreen often enough (remember to reapply every 2 hours if you are staying outside)
  • It is possible to burn on a cloudy day (over 90% of UV penetrates light cloud)
  • Sunburn is more likely to occur at high altitudes
  • The most frequently neglected areas of the body regarding sunscreen application are the lips and the ears
  • Sunscreens do go out of date. It is best not to hang on to last year’s product
  • Ensure your child is getting adequate vitamin D in their diet (400 iu daily) as sunscreens may limit the amount of vitamin D produced in the skin

Home or abroad
In Ireland, make sun protection part of your child’s daily routine from April to September, when the intensity of sunburn producing UV radiation is greatest. But remember, whether at home or abroad, if the UV index is 3 or above, protection is required.

We want everyone in Ireland to learn to Protect & Inspect their skin! Read our short guide, written with hospital-based dermatologists, to checking your skin.   

Click for more about Protect & Inspect!