Carrie Coughlin

As July comes to a close and summer nears its midpoint, don’t be lulled into thinking that you no longer have to be as vigilant with sun protection. To wrap up national Ultraviolet (UV) Safety Month, Ladue News spoke with Dr. Carrie Coughlin, a Washington University pediatric dermatologist with Siteman Kids at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

Most people know that too much sun exposure is dangerous, but is the sun more dangerous for children?

Sun exposure increases risk for skin damage in both children and adults. Many people have a large amount of their sun exposure as children, so protecting the skin in childhood is very important. Sunburns in both children and adults increase risk for skin cancer.

What should someone look for in sunscreen for children?

Sunscreens that are “physical blocks” with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients work as soon as they are applied. “Chemical blocks” that have ingredients such as avobenzone and oxybenzone need to absorb into the skin [and] require at least 20 minutes after application before they will work. I like physical blocks for children, so you can apply the lotion and it’s ready to protect their skin right away. The block doesn’t need to be specifically branded for children, though many that list they are for children and babies have zinc in them.

Is sunscreen enough, or do children need protective clothing and hats?

I love hats, sunglasses, sun shirts, sun shorts, skirts and pants. If children wear sun-protective clothing (rated with UPF [ultraviolet protection factor] scores), there is less exposed skin that needs sunscreen. They should have sunscreen with at least SPF [sun protection factor] 30 – I recommend SPF 30 to 50 – applied to skin not covered by clothing, reapplying every two hours if dry, or every 80 to 90 minutes if wet or sweaty.

If a child is under 6 months of age, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sunscreen should be used sparingly, but it’s OK to use if needed. Clothing, hats, umbrellas and other physical blocks to the sun are preferred in this age group. The sun is most intense from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., so it’s best to be outside more before or after that time frame.

If your child does get a sunburn, what should you do?

You should use supportive care, such as aloe vera gel or a soy cream to relieve symptoms. Cool compresses are also helpful. The American Academy of Dermatology says that ointments with Vaseline should be avoided for acute sunburns because they can make the skin warmer. Sometimes, over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can help if the skin is very inflamed. Leave blisters intact. And importantly, figure out why the sunburn occurred, and don’t let it happen again!

What about eyes? Are sunglasses important even for young children?

Sunglasses protect both eyes and eyelids from sun exposure. Since people can develop skin cancer on the eyelids, protecting that skin with sunglasses is very important.

What’s the most important thing people should know about sun protection for children?

The most important thing is to make protecting skin from the sun part of your routine. The whole family should wear sunscreen regularly, reapply it when out for a while and wear sun-protective clothing. If you instill good habits early, your children will be much more likely to make sun protection their default and have healthier skin with decreased risks for skin cancer.

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