Sun Safety Tips for Kids

Learn how to protect your kids' skin this summer.

Have you heard that skin cancer is on the rise?

Are you worried about what that means for your child?

Are you hesitant to make them spend all their time inside instead of playing outside?

Since I have a brother who has had skin cancer removed, I take skin health very seriously. My family is full of fair-skinned people which increases our risk of skin cancer. But it wasn’t something we were overly concerned about until it struck my brother last year.

He was able to get fully treated, leaving only a scar on his face where they had to dig the cancer out. But unfortunately, not everyone will be this lucky with their treatment.

His situation has served as a real wake-up call that I have to increase my family’s sun protection.

In this guide, I will share with you everything I have learned from hours of in-depth research, to help you better protect your families skin.

Why Does Skin Protection Matter?

If you told someone you had a magic potion that would give them cancer protection in a bottle, they’d likely run right out and buy that product.

We would all love that magic potion, wouldn’t we?

When it comes to skin cancer, we have that magic potion. It’s called sunscreen. Most of us don’t use it nearly as much as we should.

Consider This

The American Cancer Society estimates there was 87,110 new melanomas diagnosed in 2017 (1). Melanoma is the deadliest kind of skin cancer and was expected to cause 9,730 deaths last year.

Even more troubling about melanoma is that many young people are getting it. It has become one of the top cancers in people under 30, striking young women in particular.

Unlike many other cancers which have been decreasing or leveling off in recent years, melanoma has shown an increase in incidence for the past several decades (2).

75% Children Don't Use Sunblock

All the sun exposure you get during your life adds to your risk of getting melanoma. Despite all this information, only 25 percent of children use sunscreen on a regular basis (3). As parents, we have to do better. I know I need to.

Sometimes, if my kids are going to the pool for an hour, I don’t make them wear sunscreen, particularly if they already have a base tan which makes them less likely to burn. But sometimes that hour stretches into two hours when they beg me to let them stay a little longer at the pool.

There have been times where they have been a bit pink after a long summer day. And they’ve both had a full-fledged sunburn once each. Since my brother’s diagnosis, I’ve really been wondering about the permanent damage they went through with that sunburn.

It turns out; I’m right to be worried.

6 Months Old

According to recent research, some babies get their first incident of sun damage by the time they are six months old (4). Since lifetime exposure is what most matters, keeping your child’s skin undamaged as long as you can is the best policy.

That means you need to be extra careful during the nice summer months when kids tend to spend more time outside.

I will never forget the 3-month old I once saw who sustained second-degree burns on his chest and abdomen from sun exposure. He and his family went on a beach vacation. Because of his age, the parents did not apply sunscreen since labels indicated use over the age of 6 months. The family had a tent, and he wore a hat, but the indirect sun from the beach sand was more intense than the parents expected. Because of this unfortunate occurrence, I recommend applying a PABA-free sunscreen to the skin of infants when in potential high sun exposure situations, even under six months old. There are also sun-protective clothing options for infants available now, which can be used as well.
Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Editor's Note:

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

What Is UV?

The sun isn’t bad — it is our number one source of vitamin D, which is something we all need for bone health.

In addition to helping us produce vitamin D, the sun gives off three kinds of ultraviolet rays. They are called UVA, UVB and UVC (5). Let’s take a closer look at each type.

  • UVA: These kinds of rays are the ones that contribute to wrinkles and aging. Plus, they also can lead to melanoma. This is the type of ray that we get the most of because it can go right through the ozone layer.
  • UVB: These rays can lead to health consequences for us too, including sunburns, skin cancer and even cataracts. The ozone layer blocks some UVB rays, but unfortunately, some still sneak through.
  • UVC: The worst of the rays for us are the ones called UVC, but luckily for us, the ozone layer doesn’t let these rays get through.

When we’re exposed to UV rays, a chemical in our skin called melanin attempts to absorb the rays before they cause damage to our skin. But not everybody has the same level of melanin. People with fairer hair, lighter skin, and lighter eyes have less melanin and a greater risk for skin cancer.

Your exposure to UV rays depends upon many factors, including what time of day you’re outside, where you live in the world, what altitude you’re at, and the time of the year. Also, it’s important to know that UV rays are most powerful during the summer.

The longer you can delay introducing a lot of sun exposure to your child, the better off they will be.

It’s easiest to do when they’re a baby and a toddler — you are in complete control of their schedules and their activities. As children begin getting older and developing a social life and extracurricular activities, it becomes more difficult to limit how much time they spend in the sun.

For babies, you can use formulas made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide once they reach six months old. Use SPF 15 to 30 for them.

For toddlers or pre-schoolers, go for an SPF of 30 or higher.

Here is what the AAP recommends for infant sun protection.

Slather on the Sunscreen

While sunscreens protect against different kinds of rays, you can find broad-spectrum sunscreen that guards against UVA and UVB rays.

There are so many brands to choose from and so much terminology to figure out.

My kids are used to me slathering them up with sunscreen before they head out for a playdate with their friends, and I try always to keep a bottle in their bags in case they stay later on their playdates than they intended.

If they’re gone too long, I send a text to the mom who has them to ask her to re-apply their sunscreen.

While the words sunscreens and sunblocks are often used interchangeably, there is a difference between the two.

Sunblocks provide a physical barrier between your skin and the sun using a variety of ingredients that reflect the harmful UVB rays. Sunscreen, on the other hand, provides a chemical barrier that absorbs the UVA rays before they can damage your skin.

How to Choose a Great Sunscreen

Here are some of the top things you should look for in one of the best sunscreens for kids.

  • You should use a sunscreen that offers an SPF of at least 30, which will protect you from 97 percent of the harmful rays you’re facing (6).
  • If you’re going swimming or even think that you might, you should go for a water-resistant sunscreen.
  • Make sure to choose a broad-spectrum formula that will block both UVA and UVB rays.
  • You can choose lotions, creams or sprays. But you should be aware that sprays are not the best choice even though they are convenient. They go on thinner and you may miss spots when you apply them. Plus, inhaling the sprayed sunscreen isn’t healthy for lungs.
    In clinical practice, I do not recommend spray sunscreens. I do not find that they provide adequate skin coverage, particularly when applied on a windy day; much of the product ends up blowing into the air and very little ends up on the skin. Many more cases of sunburn that I see in the office result from using a spray-type sunscreen. Also, spray sunscreens should never be worn by anyone near an open flame such as a barbeque grill. They are flammable (7).
    Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

    Editor's Note:

    Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP
  • Some of the ingredients you may want in your sunscreen include titanium dioxide, ecamsule, avobenzone, or zinc oxide.
  • Not all sunscreens are healthy, which makes selecting one much harder. There are certain ingredients you’ll want to avoid. Some of the ingredients that you may want to stay away from include oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (8). Some water-resistant sunscreens contain these two ingredients, so it is important to check labels. Wearing sunscreens with oxybenzone have also been banned off the coast of Hawaii and other coastal areas due to its known effects on coral reefs.
  • If you’re worried about sunscreens doing more harm than good and you’re looking for sunscreens that have received good ratings from the Environmental Working Group.

How to Use Sunscreen Properly

When you are getting ready to apply your sunscreen, here is what you need to know:

  • You should apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before you plan to head outside. That gives it time to be absorbed into the skin.
  • Don’t skimp on the sunscreen. Adults need about one ounce of it to cover everything that needs covering if you’re wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.
  • You should reapply it every two hours or so.
  • Make sure you cover every part of your baby’s exposed skin. If they don’t have much hair yet, you’ll also want to put block on their head or make them wear a hat when they’re out there.

Sunscreen Precaution

Depending upon your child’s age, there are a few precautions you should take.

  • With babies under the age of 6 months, you should only use sunscreen sparingly on as little skin as you can, such as the face. But the best policy is not to use it on babies this young — attempt to use shade to shield her instead.
  • When your baby is six months or older, you need to be especially careful near the eyes. Babies are continually rubbing and touching their faces, and if your child gets sunscreen on her hand while touching her face, she could easily rub it into her eyes. That can sting.
  • With toddlers and older kids, you want to coat all areas that will see the sun, even on a cloudy day.
  • Here are some additional tips from the AAP.

Consider Protective Clothing

Sunscreen isn’t foolproof — it only protects against a certain percentage of the sun’s harmful rays.

Plus if you don’t reapply it often enough, it won’t help. It won’t protect you while it’s sitting in the bottle.

If you aren’t vigilant about re-applying your sunscreen when you should or if you aren’t a fan of putting so many chemicals on your body, you can still block harmful rays with your clothes.

Like sunscreens, clothes have ratings too when it comes to the sun protection they offer. The rating system used for clothes is called UPF, which stands for ultraviolet protection factor.

How It Works

A UPF of 50 means 1/50th of the UV rays that hit the fabric will pass through to your skin. That means that clothing item would offer protection of 98 percent.

While not all clothes are given a UPF rating, you can look for special collections that do have that information. For the best protection, you should look for fabric that has a UPF of at least 40.

Who Should Use Sun Protective Clothing

UPF clothing can help everyone meet their sun protection needs, but there are certain populations that will benefit tremendously from them. Those include:

  • People with fair skin: If you know you’re at risk of skin cancer, you might sleep easier knowing you’re covered with UPF clothes.
  • Kids: Avoiding early sun damage gives your kids their best chance at avoiding skin cancer and premature wrinkles. UPF clothing can help with that.
  • People who live by the equator: The sun’s rays are the strongest at and near the equator. You should also consider UPF clothing if you live at high altitudes or near the water.
  • Those who are taking medication: Certain medications like some antibiotics and antihistamines can increase your sensitivity to the sun (9).

How to Choose the Best Protective Clothing

If you want to buy clothing that doesn’t have UPF ratings, you can take a look at a few factors that will let you know if the item will offer much protection. Watch for:

  • Thicker fabrics or dense construction: If a fabric looks thin and almost see-through you can bet it won’t offer much protection from the sun.
  • Darker fabrics: Dark or vibrant colors offer more protection than pale or white colors.
  • The material: Look for polyester or nylon, which is good at blocking UV rays. Stay away from plain cotton items unless they have had treatments which make them more sun proof.

One of the UPF clothing items I love is the i-play baby and toddler shirt. It comes in different colors so you can find a great hue for both boys and girls. I like that it has long sleeves, but it’s still lightweight and breathable so they won’t feel hot. And the best part is that it has a UPF rating of 50 plus.

When to Wear Your UPF Clothing

To get the most out of UPF clothing, you can wear them while the sun is at its strongest, which is typically the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you plan to spend a long day in the sun, you’ll definitely want to have some UPF clothing to give your sun protection an added boost.

My kids usually wear swim shirts in the water when they are going swimming during the harshest light of the day. That allows me to use less sunscreen on them since I do worry about the chemicals I put on their bodies when I use it.

Don’t Forget a Hat

Unless we’re in the shade, our heads are never out of direct sunlight when we’re outside. But many of us don’t relish the idea of putting thick sunscreen on our heads because our hair will look and feel greasy.

So the best protection for our noggins is putting a hat on.

But the problem is that most babies and toddlers won’t leave a hat on. They squirm and keep trying to rip off that hat. It doesn’t stand a chance of remaining on very long when they turn their full attention to it.

To keep their hats on, you can pick a hat with straps that can either be tied or snapped into place. That will also help keep the hat on if you are at a windy spot such as the beach.

The Best Kinds of Hats

Legionnaire type of hats will cover the neck, sides of the face and ears too so they are a good choice for children. You can also find hats that have wide brims, so they offer shade to the rest of the face and neck.

While baseball hats are better than nothing for children, they won’t guard enough area to be the best choice out there (10). But if you have a kid who won’t sit still, baseball hats may be the only type they like to wear.

I found out the hard way with my daughter that practical hats are sometimes the best option. I bought her an adorable toddler Dora the Explorer hat with a wide brim for our first trip to the beach. It lasted about five seconds before it was blowing off her head because of the wind along the shoreline. A hat with straps would have been wearable while the one I picked out wasn’t.

Shade is Underrated

Sometimes the sun is so intense your best option is to find shade when you’re outside. That’s especially true if you and your family have been out in the strong sun all day long.

Finding shade can cool you down and protect your skin, so it’s a double win.

Your best bet to minimize sun damage to your skin is to seek out shade when the sun’s rays are the strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Tips for Finding Shade

  • Remember, as the sun moves, so will the shade so you might have to adjust positions now and then throughout the day (11).
  • When sitting under a tree for shade, you’ll get the best coverage with bigger trees that have lots of leaves.
  • If you buy a folding chair with an attached canopy to use as shade, you’ll want to make sure the canopy can adjust to ensure you can get adequate protection.
  • If you’re taking your kids on a long road trip, you might want to buy a cling or bring a blanket to hang over the side windows while you drive. You can get harmful rays even while you’re in the car.
  • Consider buying a pop-up shade tent if you plan to spend a lot of time outdoors in the summer. Kids love these kinds of tents, and they’re good for them too.

Products That Can Help

If you’re looking for different products that can provide shade on a sunny day, you’re in luck. There are lots of products like that to choose from.

When my children recently wanted to attend an all-day sports tournament that was held outdoors to cheer on a relative who was participating in the games, we brought along our pop-up shade tent.

By the end of the day, it had become a popular hangout for all the little kids at that tournament. The parents loved it because our children were getting sun protection and we knew where they were at all times.

When choosing a shade product like a tent, umbrella or a chair with a canopy, you’ll want to look at its durability, how easy it is to set up, if it’s something the whole family can use at once and how portable it is.

If you’re looking for a great shade product, here are three of my personal favorites:

  • Outdoor Master Beach Tent: This shade tent is something the whole family can fit into, and it’s super easy to set up on grass or on the beach. It gives an SPF protection of 50 plus.
  • Kelsyus Canopy Chair: With a 50 plus UPF protection rating, this chair earns high marks for being easy to set up and for being able to withstand windy days.
  • Sport-Brella Sun Umbrella: With an 8-foot canopy, this gives off an impressive amount of shade. It will protect your child from 99.5 percent of UVA and UVB rays.

Sunglasses Aren’t Just for Looking Cool

Even your eyes can be damaged by harmful rays so you’ll always want to make sure your child has a pair of sunglasses handy when she’s out and about.

Take Note

Babies and toddlers don’t have as much pigment in their eyes as adults do, which means their eyes could be harmed even more by UV rays than adults.

Making sure your kids are in the shade doesn’t guard their eyes fully. They’ll still get damage from UV rays that are reflected. (12)

My kids have always loved rocking sunglasses at the beach or the pool. They felt cooler with them on, and we made sure to find smaller sized glasses for kids that felt comfortable on their faces.

How to Choose the a Great Pair of Sunglasses

Here are some tips and things to look for when you choose the best sunglasses for your kids:

  • Let your child pick what kind of frame she wants. That might make her more excited about wearing her new sunglasses.
  • You might want to consider a wrap-around strap to keep the sunglasses in place when you’re dealing with babies or toddlers.
  • Look for lenses that offer 100 percent protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Make sure the lenses are big enough to completely protect their eyes, including peripheral vision.

Parents who are looking for a good pair of toddler sunglasses may want to check out PolarSpex polarized sunglasses. They come in a variety of colors for both boys and girls and they offer complete protection from UV rays.

How to Get Your Kids to Wear Their Sunglasses

Sometimes getting your toddler to wear sunglasses can be tricky. But there are a few ways you can win that battle:

  • Make sure you wear your sunglasses when you’re outside. If your kids see you doing it, they’ll want to imitate you.
  • Don’t put their sunglasses on in the house — wait until you step outside. If they are squinting in the bright light outside, they may not mind sunglasses as much once they see how much they filter out the sun.
  • Don’t give up. Keep trying to put the sunglasses on your child whenever you’re outside.

Stay Out Of The Sun When It’s Strongest

At different points of the day, it makes more sense to stay inside.

The sun’s rays are typically strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

But if you don’t have a watch on and you have no idea what time it is, you can still tell if you might want to consider heading indoors if you have a short shadow (13). A short shadow is an indication that you are outside when the sun is at its strongest.

UV rays are at their peak in the summer, but even in the winter, they pose a threat since snow can reflect up to 90 percent of them. Here is more on the importance of eye sun protection in winter.

Take Note

If you live in the mountains you definitely want sunscreen at all times, and you should avoid the sun during the most dangerous hours. Because of the higher altitude, you’ll get more exposure to damaging rays.

Those who are planning on taking tropical vacations this year should consider staying indoors during the sun’s peak hours since the UV rays will be stronger near the equator.

When my kids want to head to the park or the pool, I try to do the park in the morning and the pool late in the afternoon. That way they stay out of the worst of the sun’s rays.

Safeguard Your Car Windows

Remembering that your kids can still catch harmful rays through the car windows is an important part of sun protection.

If you have a newer car, there’s less to worry about though.

Most of the glass on newer models has been treated to provide some protection against UV rays.

You can tint the rear and side windows of your vehicle, depending upon the restrictions enforced by your state. Because these regulations vary from state to state, you should stop at your local DMV office to ask about tinting regulations in your state before you do anything to your vehicle (14).

Take Note

Some drivers are allowed to tints their windows if they have qualifying medical conditions like sun allergies, lupus and melanoma.

If you find your state allows window tinting, you can place a tinted film sheet on the inside of your window or a plastic shade provider that’s kept up by suction cups.

If you do go ahead with window tinting, you should:

  • Wash your vehicle first.
  • Dry it thoroughly with a lint-free towel.
  • Clean your windows on the inside of the car.

If you’re the type who likes do-it-yourself projects and you want something you can take down in a hurry, you can make your own curtains for the windows.

They can easily be pulled to one side to let light in when the worst of the sun has passed.

All you need is some string, two suction cups and a small blanket or cloth.

Punch holes in a blanket and run the string through. Voila! You have a custom window covering.

Taking Care of Sunburns

It’s the thing every parent hates to see — their kid suffering from sunburn.

Many adults have suffered their way through at least one painful sunburn in their lives and when they see their children dealing with the pain and discomfort of a sunburn they wish they could make it all better.

Unfortunately, your child will have to get through this on their own. But there are some small steps you can take to help.

  • Break out the ice packs. Just make sure you wrap a towel around it first.
  • Cool baths or showers can help — be sure to skip the soap because that can be too drying.
  • Frequent applications of aloe vera can give temporary relief.
  • Use ground oatmeal in your bath so it can do its magic as an anti-inflammatory.
  • Dabbing milk on the sunburn can help take some of the heat and sting out.
  • You can use ibuprofen to help with a sunburn too.

If your child has large blisters more than a ½ inch in size or doesn’t seem better after two days, you may want to consult the doctor. You can also make an appointment if your child develops a fever along with the sunburn or you’re concerned about how he looks or is acting. Heatstroke can be very serious, particularly in infants (15).

Have a Sun Smart Summer!

Now that you have a better grasp on how to handle the sun, your child will have a much better chance at reducing his risk for skin cancer and other sun-related damage.

Just having all this knowledge makes me feel much more confident about the choices I make when it comes to my children and the sun.

I’m much more aware when it comes to ways to protect their skin and their eyes. Now that I have a plan in place, I don’t worry so much.

How are you handling the sun in your family? Do you have any great tips the rest of us would benefit from? Let us know down in the comments below.

Headshot of Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Reviewed by

Dr. Leah Alexander, MD, FAAP

Leah Alexander, M.D. FAAP is board certified in General Pediatrics and began practicing pediatrics at Elizabeth Pediatric Group of New Jersey in 2000. She has been an independently contracted pediatrician with Medical Doctors Associates at Pediatricare Associates of New Jersey since 2005. Outside of the field of medicine, she has an interest in culinary arts.
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