1. SUNSCREEN, SUNSCREEN AND MORE SUNSCREEN!
I cannot stress this enough. The damage that causes skin cancer in adulthood can start in childhood. Every child needs sunscreen, regardless of skin tone. Melanin is a pigment found in the skin that absorbs UV rays. The darker the skin, the more melanin there is, therefore the more UV rays are absorbed. This simply means that the skin will take longer to burn BUT it will burn.
How does sunscreen work?
Most sunscreens contain organic and inorganic chemicals. The inorganic chemicals act as a physical barrier and don’t get absorbed into the skin. These are known as physical sunscreens and work by reflecting UV rays, which is what used to make sunblock look white on the skin. Modern day sunblock no longer leaves this white residue on the skin.
The organic chemicals actually absorb UV rays, much like melanin, and then disperse the energy as heat. These chemicals get absorbed into the skin and are known as chemical sunscreens.
What is the difference between UVA and UVB rays?
UVB rays are the main cause of redness of the skin and sunburn. These rays damage the superficial layers of the skin.
UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and cause the tanned look by increasing the amount of melanin in the skin. This is a how the skin protects itself from further damage. There is no way to tell how much UVA damage the skin has endured.
How to choose the right sunscreen?
It does not matter if you use a lotion, cream, gel, spray or stick. They are all equally effective. What is important is that you apply a sunscreen with at least an SPF 30.
To get the most protection, you need a broad-spectrum sunscreen. This means the sunscreen must protect against UVA and UVB rays. No sunscreen can block 100 percent of UVB rays; SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks out 97% and SPF 50 blocks 98%.
Using a water-resistant sunscreen is probably a better idea especially if your little ones are running around sweating a lot or swimming.
What is SPF?
Sun protection factor (SPF) is a measure of how long a sunscreen will protect you before you burn. SPF is a measure of UVB rays only.
So how does the factor in SPF work? If you normally burn after 20 minutes (without sunblock) and you apply an SPF 15 it will take 15 times longer to burn. This means that you should theoretically be protected for 5 hours (20 x 15 = 300/60 = 5 hours) If you use an SPF 30 then it should take 30 times longer and therefore 10 hours before you burn. However, it is impossible to expect a sunscreen to be effective for 5 hours never mind 10 so the SPF model is not 100% fail proof.
How common is sunscreen allergy?
It is uncommon to have an allergy to sunscreen. If there is a real allergy towards a sunblock it is usually towards one of the organic chemicals found in the cream. It’s a good idea to test the sunblock out first on a small area of the skin to see if an allergy will occur, before applying sunblock to the whole body. Sunscreens for sensitive skin are readily available. Physical sunscreens are not known to cause allergies. Make sure to check the label so you know what you are getting.
Be sure to put sunscreen on all exposed areas. Don’t forget the tops of the feet, back of the hands, the ears, back of the neck, hairline, lips and nose.
Remember to apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going out into the sun. All sunscreens, regardless of strength, need to be reapplied every 2 hours. Reapply more frequently if swimming and/or sweating a lot. Sand and water also reflects more light so your children will burn more easily when at the beach, swimming or playing water sports. Remember, no sunscreen is waterproof.
2. COVER UP
You should never rely on sunscreen alone to keep your children safe from the harmful UV rays. There are other additional measures you can take to protect your children from the sun and heat. Have your children wear loose cotton clothing so that they don’t overheat and avoid sheer fabrics as UV rays can penetrate these.
Clothing that contains Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) is becoming more readily available. UPF fabric is very tightly woven and uses dyes that disrupt UV light, which prevents the penetration of both UVA and UVB rays. Look for UPF clothing with a rating of 50+. Don’t forget about hats. Wide brimmed hats are better as they also protect the ears and back of the neck.
If the skin needs protecting so do the eyes. Whilst Sunglasses these days are much more of a fashion statement they are actually very important in protecting eyes against UV rays. UV rays can cause a number of eye problems later in life such as cataracts, retinal damage, pterygium formation and skin cancer of the eyelids. Short-term exposure can also burn the cornea, which is extremely painful and causes blurred vision. I have seen various sunglasses that are available for children. When buying sunglasses make sure though that they protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
6. NEWBORNS AND YOUNG CHILDREN
Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of the direct sunlight. The skin is thinner and the melanin is not properly developed. If this is not possible, use a sunscreen that contains either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide only (a physical barrier cream only). These are less likely to irritate your baby’s sensitive skin, as they do not get absorbed. Still, make sure that you keep them out of the sun during the harmful peak hours mentioned below.
4. STAY HYDRATED
Prevent heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, exhaustion and stroke. Make sure your children drink plenty of fluids before and during outdoor activities in hot weather. Thirst is a late sign of dehydration.
5. OPT FOR SHADE
Your children should try stay in the shade during dangerous peak times, 11am – 3pm, when UVB rays are the strongest. Kids should also take regular breaks from the sun and go into the shade to cool down and prevent overheating.
6. CLOUDY, OVERCAST WEATHER
This is a common problem. One thinks because there is no visible sun the clouds offer protection but in fact the clouds only manage to filter a small percentage of UV rays. Children can still get sunburnt when it is cloudy. Even though you may not be able to see the sun, the sun’s UV rays still reach the earth.
7. SET AN EXAMPLE
Make sure you always wear sunscreen and sunglasses. Let your kids help rub it in on your shoulders. Avoid tanning and limit your time in the sun so that your children can learn correct behaviours from you.
I know that some of these tips may seem obvious but I continue to see children playing outdoors without any sunscreen or sunhats. In a climate like what we have in South Africa we need to be more aware of the dangers the sun and heat create for our little ones.