It is well known that the ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight can have damaging effects on human health. The vulnerable developing skin of children and babies can sunburn and scar easily. Excessive time spent in the sun can also have long-term, sometimes dangerous, effects including: eye damage (i.e. cataracts), skin cancer and premature skin aging (wrinkles; sagging; age spots and other lesions; broken blood vessels; thin, fragile, dry or leathery skin).
Importantly, the amount of sun exposure and sunburn a child incurs contributes significantly to their risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma, later in life. Therefore, sun safety is vital for protecting the skin and reducing a child’s risk of skin cancer. There are a number of ways you can help to protect your child from the damaging rays of the sun and prevent these health problems. Furthermore, children whose parents set an example with sun safety tend to learn and carry them out more often.
Light-weight, tight-weave clothing should be worn when spending time in the sun. It is best to cover as much as the body as possible, so long pants and shirts with sleeves and collars are recommended. Certain colours and types of fabric provide a better barrier between the skin and sun than others, for more information on sun safe clothes see the article on Sun protective clothing.
SunSmart Victoria recommends children and adults wear broad-rimmed hats to shade the scalp, face, ears and neck from sun damage. The hat’s brim should be at least 7 ½ cm wide, those of the bucket or legionnaire styles generally give good protection. Caps are not considered adequate protection as they don’t cover the ears and the back of the neck; common sites of sun overexposure and skin cancer development.
Most government health agencies also advocate the use of wrap-around, polarised sunglasses to protect eyes from sun damage. When choosing sunglasses for children there are a few things you can look for to ensure they will shield adequately:
- Check the label for the phrase “good UV protection”
- Numbered categories 2, 3 or 4 – this indicates the glasses guard against a high level of UV
- Text indicating that the glasses have met the Australian standard (AS/NZS 1067:2003)
- An ‘Eye Protection Factor’ (EPF) rating of 9 or 10
When sun exposure is unavoidable, sunscreens can help to protect children’s skin, however it is important to remember that no sunscreen is 100% effective and should be used alongside other protective measures.
High SPF (minimum of 30+), broad-spectrum sunscreens block or absorb the most UV radiation and may be beneficial for preventing sun damage in all its forms. Proper, thorough application is essential to ensure the effectiveness of sunscreen - this means applying it regularly and liberally (roughly one teaspoon for each limb and your face). Use a generous amount of sunscreen 20 minutes prior to going out in the sun and reapply every two hours thereafter (more often if swimming or if skin is sweaty).
For more in-depth information on sunscreen use on children and babies, see the article on Sunscreen and pediatric skin on our Science of Skin website.
Avoiding the sun
The level of UV radiation generally spikes in the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest. Where possible, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends limiting sun exposure during the hottest part of the day, from approximately 10am till 4pm. This may mean staying indoors, seeking shady spots outside or scheduling sports and other outdoor activities for the morning or late afternoon.
The forecast levels of UV radiation, known as the UV index, are often included as part of many weather reports. The Bureau of Meteorology provides information on the daily UV intensity throughout Australia, http://www.bom.gov.au/australia/uv/index.shtml.
SunSmart Victoria 2010, ‘For parents: protecting your family’, retrieved 5 April 2011, <http://www.sunsmart.com.au/sun_protection/for_parents>.
SunSmart Victoria 2010, ‘Sun protection’, retrieved 5 April 2011, <http://www.sunsmart.com.au/sun_protection>.