Raising Healthy Kids

How to Protect Your Kids from the Sun

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

It’s important to protect yourself from the sun no matter what your age. However, children are especially vulnerable to the sun’s harmful rays. Beyond the burning, itching and pain, sunburns among kids under 18 dramatically increase the risk of developing skin cancer as they age. In fact, even a child who tans instead of burns is at greater risk of skin cancer (any change in pigment is an indication of sun damage).

Here, pediatric dermatologist Marla Jahnke, M.D. answers parents’ most pressing questions about sun protection:

Q: Which type of sunscreen is best for kids?

A: It’s not uncommon for parents to have trouble deciding between spray, lotion and stick sunscreen options. The best sunscreen for anyone – below the age of 18 or above – is the one they will wear. From a dermatological standpoint, I prefer lotions. Sprays and sticks are convenient but applying a thick enough coating to achieve the anticipated SPF can be a challenge.

Q: What’s your recommended sun protection protocol?

A: Start the day with a lotion and use sprays or sticks for reapplication when you’re on the go – especially if your kids are moving around too quickly for you to adequately apply lotion outdoors. No matter which method you choose, reapply sunscreen at least every two hours and after swimming or sweating.

Q: Which ingredients should I look for?

A: First, choose a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays. For those with sensitive skin, search for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide on the ingredient list.

Q: Do I really need to purchase specially formulated “kids” sunscreen for children over 6 months?

A: No. Adult sunscreen is generally fine to use on kids. Just keep in mind that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-containing sunblock tend to be less irritating to sensitive skin (and eyes) than chemical sunscreens.

Q: Any tips for slathering sunscreen on wiggly kids?

A: Remember that sun protection is multi-modal, so you don’t need to rely on sunscreen alone to protect your child. In fact, sun protective clothing is my favorite way to protect everyone, especially wiggly kids. Clothing with UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) is widely available – both online and in many retail chains. You can purchase UPF shirts, swimsuits, rash guard shirts, full body suits, scarves, hats and sheets. There are thin sheets that can act as a great covering for strollers. I find it’s easiest to cover children with protective clothing and leave only small areas that require sunscreen exposed.

Q: What if I miss a spot?  

A: If, despite your best efforts, your child gets burned, avoid additional sun exposure until the area heals. Apply cool compresses to soothe the pain and use anti-inflammatory agents like ibuprofen, if necessary. If the burn is severe, get it checked out by a doctor.

It’s important for kids – and their parents – to enjoy the outdoors, but you should also be mindful to play it safe. Consider scheduling activities that involve direct sunlight as early or late in the day as possible. Try to stay out of the sun during peak hours (between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.). If you’re hitting the beach, pack a tent that allows some respite from direct sun. And remember: Even in the shade or inside a car, it’s important to wear sun protection.

To find a dermatologist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).  

If you’re in the Jackson area or south central Michigan, visit henryfordallegiance.com or call 1-888-862-DOCS.

Dr. Marla Jahnke is a pediatric dermatologist seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Centers in Detroit, Farmington Hills and Troy.