A day at the beach can be a welcome treat when the weather is warm, but a morning or a late afternoon trip is better for your children’s health. Too much sun can cause sunburn and, over time, skin cancer.
Anne Reilly, MD, Medical Director of the Division of Oncology at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), wants parents to know about the risks of skin cancer and how to spend time outside safely. “The incidence of skin cancer is rising year by year,” she says. “And we are seeing more of it in younger patients. Parents need to know that prevention starts in childhood, by limiting exposure to the UV rays in sunlight.”
Her advice is simple: Reduce the chance that the sun will hit your child’s unprotected skin.
There are two main ways to do that:
Avoid bright sunlight
- Organize your day to stay out of the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Plan your outings for the morning or for late afternoon and evening.
- Stay in the shade in the middle of the day. Look for a tree to sit under, set up a beach umbrella or go indoors.
- Don’t be fooled by clouds. Children can get badly sunburned even on a cloudy day. When the sun is high, UV rays beam through clouds to reach our skin.
- Babies should not be in direct sun at all, even at the beginning and end of the day.
Shield your child’s skin from the sun
- Cover your child’s skin with clothing. Dress them in light but tightly woven fabrics that block UV rays. Some children’s clothing is labeled with sun-protection factor (SPF) ratings, the way sunscreen is.
- Consider rash guards for swimming and water play. These lightweight, UV-protecting tops were originally developed for surfers and are now available for the rest of us, including children and babies.
- Have your child wear a hat with a brim. A 3-inch brim protects the face, ears and neck from the sun.
- Have your child wear UV-filtering sunglasses. Too much UV exposure is bad for the developing eyes, too.
- Use sunscreen. Wherever your child’s skin is exposed to the sun, apply sunscreen.
- Use sunscreen that has a high protective rating — SPF 30 or greater — and that doesn’t wash off easily when your child gets sweaty or wet. A quick web search will show you how different brands rate in testing by health and consumer organizations.
- Choose a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection. Look for one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
- Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before your child goes outside. It needs time to be absorbed into the skin.
- Use enough to cover all exposed skin and rub it in well. Apply carefully around the eyes, avoiding the eyelids.
- Use only minimal sunscreen on babies under 6 months old, on the face and the back of the hands. The better option is to keep babies out of the sun.
- Re-apply every couple of hours and whenever your child comes out of the water from swimming.
If, despite these precautions, your child gets a sunburn:
- Give your child extra water or other liquids to drink.
- Wet the burned skin with cool water.
- Give your child age-appropriate pain medication.
- Keep your child out of the sun until the burn is completely healed.
For teenagers, Dr. Reilly has one further bit advice: Never go to a tanning salon. Tanned skin can be appealing to teenagers, but tanning beds are a known health risk — an invitation to skin cancer. We know that UV exposure causes skin cancer, so it makes no sense to choose to administer a high dose. Use indoor tanning lotions or sprays instead.
Signs of melanoma
While skin cancer is rare in children — it generally develops in adulthood after repeated exposure to sun, starting in childhood — parents should be aware of the signs and symptoms of melanoma. Contact your doctor if you notice a mole that:
- Is irregular in shape (not symmetrical)
- Has irregular, undefined borders
- Is more than one color
- Is larger than the diameter of a pencil eraser
- Is changing in size or color