Children and sunlight

Cecilia Carlson
Licensed pediatric nurse

Children and adults alike benefit from being outside, getting fresh air, moving around and being outdoors in nature. Sunlight is good for us. However, there's some good advice to be had regarding the sun, sunscreen, and what to do in case of a sunburn.

Children have sensitive skin, which is thinner and contains less pigment than adult skin. If a child is exposed to too much sunlight, it may have adverse effects later in life. There is a documented connection between sunburns as a child and higher risk of skin cancer as an adult. Children with fair skin and/or red or blonde hair are especially vulnerable.

Children under the age of one shouldn't be in direct sunlight at all. The best ways of protecting your child are:

  • Providing shade with an umbrella or beach tent, preferably one with extra UV protection
  • Clothes, sun hats and sunglasses
  • Sunscreen

Remember, the sun's rays can still reach your baby under an umbrella, especially if you're at the beach. If they're in a stroller, temperatures may also reach uncomfortable or hazardous levels, in which case it's better to be in the shade on a blanket for example. If possible, avoid being outdoors with your baby at the time of day when the sun is strongest, around 11 AM to 3 PM. And remember, clouds still let through sunlight, so you should take care to protect your baby even on overcast days.

We can protect our kids by dressing them right. Wear long sleeves, long trousers and a sun hat. Most clothes can be said to have an SPF of 20 to 30, but there are special UV clothes which provide even more protection. The more densely woven the fabrics are, the better protection they ill give. Sunglasses with UV protection are great for taking care of the eyes. Children's eyes are more sensitive to sunlight than adults' are, and many eye disorders have a documented connection to UV light exposure.

Clothing and shade should come before sunscreen. When that's not possible, apply sunscreen to the areas of skin not covered by clothing, such as the hands. Use sunscreen made especially for children, and with a high SPF. There are different types of UV filters in different kinds of sunscreen. Particulate filters are not absorbed by the skin, and will instead form a white protective layer on top of the skin. These are not recommended for young children. Another type is the chemical filter, which is more readily absorbed and easily applied. There is also a third type, a mix of these two forms of protection, which is sometimes recommended for older children.

When your child gets a sunburn the skin becomes red, warm, and may sting. It may also swell and blister. When a sunburn happens, they should avoid the sun for several days, to let the skin heal. A sun rash also means it's best to avoid the sun. A sun rash consists of red dots or hives, often itchy. The discomfort can be helped with cold water, a cooling balm or skin lotion. Itching can be helped with a mild cortisone cream. If it's causing your child pain, it's possible that pain medication might help. Always consult your doctor or healthcare professional before administering any drug.

It's important that kids learn good habits early when it comes to the sun. Use clothing and shade as protection, and sunscreen when needed. The most important thing is to avoid sunburns!

Children need vitamin D which they will get from being in the sun. However, just by exposing their hands and face outdoors for 15 to 30 minutes, they will receive their required daily dose of sunlight. Vitamin D can also be supplemented.