Sun safety is important for everyone, especially during the summer months of intense sunlight and frequent sun exposure, but children’s skin is more sensitive than adults’, making careful protection of kids’ skin particularly necessary.

“A child’s skin is up to five times thinner than adults’ and is much more sensitive. It is therefore crucial to protect children from overexposure to sun, which can put them at risk for sunburn and its consequences of early aging and skin cancer,” says Dr. Patrice Mathews with Mercy Clinic Pediatrics and Mercy Children’s Hospital.

Parents seeking to protect their children should understand that slapping on a bit of sunscreen before going to the pool is not enough. “If a baby is less than 6 months of age, the best protection is to keep them out of the sun, either in the shade or with protective clothing,” advises Dr. Heidi Sallee, a pediatrician on staff at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center.

Toddlers and older children should be protected with liberal coatings of sunscreen, and those formulated and labeled specifically for children usually are a good choice. “Parents should look for PABA-free and fragrance-free sunscreens. Good choices are sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. It should also be a ‘broad spectrum’ sunscreen, meaning that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays,” Sallee says. Sun protection factor (SPF) refers to UVB protection and should be at least 15.

Once a parent has chosen a good broad-spectrum sunscreen, the same rules for application apply to children and adults. Using an ample amount to cover all exposed skin, the sunscreen should be rubbed in well at least 20 minutes before sun exposure. Regardless of the SPF, it should be reapplied every two hours, especially when swimming or sweating. And don’t forget to apply sunscreen even on overcast days because ultraviolet rays pierce cloud cover. UVA and UVB rays are most direct between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so special caution is needed during these midday hours.

Another good idea for children (and adults) is to wear sun-protective clothing. “Children should get in the habit of wearing wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and tight-weave clothing,” says Dr. Julia Mayer, a pediatrician with St. Louis Pediatric Associates at St. Luke’s Hospital. “Clothing labeled with SPF protection often loses its effectiveness with repeated washing. Also, kids should frequently stay in shaded areas during the day.”

If, despite everything, your child does get sunburned, basic first aid will help decrease discomfort. “The best way to treat a sunburn is cool compresses and acetaminophen,” Mathews says. “A more serious sunburn can cause blisters, fever, chills and headache—the child should be seen by a medical professional.”

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