A Dermatologist’s Guide to Safe Fun in the Sun
With summer finally heating up, your family may be spending more time outdoors and exposed to the sun’s rays. Even minor sunburns can result in skin damage and increase the risk for skin cancer, so protection from the sun important for the whole family.
Annette Wagner, MD, an attending physician in Lurie Children’s Division of Dermatology, offers guidance on sun safety for kids and adults and answers some frequently asked questions, including children’s sunscreen recommendations.
Choosing a Sunscreen for Kids
It’s safe for infants from birth to use sunscreen, if the sunscreen is chemical free. Chemical-free sunscreens rely on two active ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These physical blockers are less harmful because they stay on the skin surface like clothing and don’t get absorbed like other chemicals. They also block a wider spectrum of light, making them even more protective.
Sunscreens with an SPF of 30 blocks about 96% of the more dangerous UVB light rays, but the higher SPF options usually contain more chemicals, and the additional benefits are very minimal. Avoid sunscreen gimmicks, like sprays and sticks, or sunscreens that are perfumed; the best sunscreen is a cream in a bottle.
Children are rarely allergic to chemical-free sunscreens, but if you child is it will cause hives or immediate redness on the skin when applied. Keep in mind that many things produce redness including heat itself or incorrectly applied sunscreen. However, if you have a highly allergic child, first apply a chemical-free sunscreen to the inner arm before bed to look for an allergic reaction like an itchy, swollen rash.
Sun Safety for the Entire Family
As for everyone else, there really is no difference between child and adult sunscreens. Chemical-free sunscreens can and should be used at all ages. Look on the label for the active ingredients and make sure there is no perfume or PABA. For adults, chemical sunscreens are good alternatives that are not as thick and more cosmetically elegant. Chemical-containing sunscreens work on everyone but are not recommended for children or infants.
When it comes to sun protection, it’s essential to start young and stay consistent, as sun damage can have long-term effects, including premature aging and skin cancer.
How and When to Apply Sunscreen
Sunscreen works most effectively if a thick layer is applied and allowed to sit on the skin surface for one to two minutes before being rubbed in. The sunscreen layer should be thick enough to completely cover the skin, so no freckles are visible through it. Think of it like applying peanut butter to bread – if you can see the bread through the peanut butter you would put on more! After a minute has passed, rub the sunscreen down onto the lower face rather than laterally off the cheeks.
Sunscreen should be applied daily, but reapplication is even more important if in the sun more than two hours, swimming or sweating. Even waterproof sunscreens come off! Remember that hats, sunglasses and swim shirts, as well as other forms of sun protective clothing, are excellent ways to protect your children from the sun that do not rub off over time.
Q: What is the best SPF to look for when you are buying sunscreen?
A: A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 blocks about 96% of the more dangerous UVB light rays. Higher SPF options usually contain more chemicals and the additional benefits are very minimal. Look for sunscreens that contain physical blockers: titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These are less harmful since they stay on the skin surface like clothing and do not get absorbed. They also block a wider spectrum of light, making them even more protective. Avoid sunscreen gimmicks, like sprays and sticks, or sunscreens that are perfumed. The best sunscreen is a cream in a bottle.
Q: What is the most effective way to apply sunscreen?
A: Sunscreen works most effectively if a thick layer is applied and allowed to sit on the skin surface for one to two minutes before being rubbed in. The sunscreen layer should be thick enough to completely cover the skin so no freckles are visible through it. Think of it like applying peanut butter to bread – if you can see the bread through the peanut butter you would put on more! After a minute has passed, rub the sunscreen down onto the lower face rather than laterally off of the cheeks. And remember to reapply if you are in the sun for more than two hours or swimming. Even waterproof sunscreens come off! Remember that hats and swim shirts, as well as other forms of sun protective clothing, are excellent ways to protect your children from the sun that do not rub off over time.
Q: Does sun exposure cause damage to skin?
A: Well, there’s no question that the sun will injure your skin if you go outside without the right protection. The sun produces energy; that energy is absorbed by your skin cells. The energy then causes breaks in your skin cells’ DNA, but your body has a repair mechanism that helps the skin heal. We recognize now that freckling, which is a form of sun injury on the skin, is not healthy. It’s a sign that the skin is not tolerating the sun’s harmful effects, and therefore injuring the DNA that make up those healthy cells.
Q: If I have darker skin, does that mean I cannot suffer sun damage?
A: Generally speaking, people with darker skin types typically produce eumelanin in their skin, while people with lighter skin types typically produce pheomelanin. The difference between those two is that pheomelanin is not protective as a barrier against the sun. However, if your skin produces eumelanin, which can act as a protective barrier against the sun, your skin becomes darker, or what you would call tan. That’s why the darker your skin pigment, the less likely you are to sunburn. That doesn’t mean that you don’t sunburn or that you don’t have to protect your skin from the sun – sun protection is still important for those with darker skin. It just means you are less likely to have problems than someone who doesn’t make eumelanin.
Q: Can staying out of the sun cause Vitamin D deficiency?
A: When you are in the sun, your skin actually produces Vitamin D, which is one of the sun’s most beneficial effects. However, you don’t have to rely on the sun to get Vitamin D. Food such as bread and milk are often supplemented with it, so a well-balanced diet would provide enough Vitamin D for a child or adolescent.
Q: If I wear sunscreen, will I still be able to get a tan?
A: It’s a myth that your skin will not develop pigment and will not darken if you’re wearing sunscreen. That process still happens. However, with the appropriate reapplication of sunscreen, you avoid most of the negative effects of overexposure. When you get sunburned, many of your skin cells are killed or are left with damaged DNA.
Q: Is sun damage that dangerous?
A: If you sunburn over and over again, you may be at an increased risk of skin cancers – basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma in particular. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Even a melanoma that is just one millimeter in depth will kill 50% of the people that have it within five years.
Make an Appointment
Dr. Annette Wagner see patients at Lurie Children’s Outpatient Center at Westchester and Lurie Children’s Outpatient Center at Arlington Heights.
If you’d like to request an appointment with one of our specialists, call 1.800.543.7362 (1.800.KIDS DOC®).
Keep your little ones safe during playtime with these helpful toy safety tips from Lurie Children's Patient and Family Education Team.
Learn how Trauma and EMS experts from Lurie Children’s Emergency and Surgery Departments are teaching lifesaving CPR and bleeding cessation skills to the public, and how to sign up for the training.