Sunscreen is the superhero of skin everywhere, protect ing against UV radiation with a single application. But like many masked marvels, sunscreen doesn’t always get its due, despite the seriousness of UV overexposure. How serious? According to the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA), the main cause of skin cancer (the most common cancer in the world) is too much UV radiation.
Despite our best intentions, most of this UV exposure happens early in life. “Some data shows parents are good at protecting their kids in the first year of life, but then it dwindles after that,” explains Cheryl Rosen, national director of CDA’s Sun Awareness Program. “We need to continue to think about sun protection as kids grow.”
News about vitamin D may also be lessening sunscreen use. But Rosen says studies show getting this vitamin from the sun is no more effective than getting it from supplements. Read on for how to protect kids from UV exposure.
Sunscreen acts as a barrier against UV radiation when applied to the skin, either through chemicals that absorb UV rays, or “physical” blockers (such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) that cover skin and reflect the rays. People who are allergic or sensitive to a specific ingredient in sunscreens should consider products that rely on these physical blockers.
For maximum effectiveness, look for a sunscreen listed as broad spectrum to protect against both UVB and UVA rays, which cause burning, are responsible for premature aging and contribute to the development of skin cancer. Experts suggest wearing a product with a minimum SPF of 30. “Wearing these higher SPF numbers makes good sense, especially given most people do not apply enough,” says Rosen. “Some studies show that higher SPF numbers better protect the immune system when skin is exposed to the sun.”
Much of our sun exposure happens by age 18, so children need to be protected right from infancy. “It all adds up,” says Rosen. “The more sunburns and unprotected time in the sun you have, the greater your risk of skin damage and developing skin cancer.” Keep babies out of direct sunlight or shaded by an umbrella or stroller hood. Top them off with a wide-brimmed sun hat and loose, lightweight clothing that covers legs and arms. Finally, apply sunscreen to uncovered areas: There is no age limit to when sunscreen can be used — so, yes, even babies under six months old can wear sunscreen. In most cases, kids’ sunscreens are essentially the same as those marketed to adults, explains Rosen, so it is more about a preference in the texture (cream, gel, spray) or specific conditions, such as skin sensitivity or acne.
Get it on
Sunscreen needs time to bond to your skin, so apply a generous amount (about a shot glass full for adults; adjust for larger or smaller body sizes) all over exposed skin 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure. It should form a thin, even layer. Make sure to cover often-missed areas, such as ears, lips and behind the neck. And don’t forget to reapply sunscreen after kids get out of the water or if they are sweating a lot. Most manufacturers suggest reapplying every two hours as a safeguard.
If your child will be swimming or doing a water sport or high-energy activity, you might want to opt for a water-resistant (no product is waterproof) sunscreen. A spray sunscreen appeals to kids on the go and many teens, but it needs to be rubbed in so it covers skin evenly. There are also specific SPF products for lips; reapply regularly, as eating and drinking can remove them.
Cataracts are a result of chronic sun exposure, explains Rosen, so cover those baby eyes with sunglasses whenever possible. Look for pairs that protect against UVA
Hard to keep your toddler slicked with sunscreen? Save his tender skin with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing. These swimsuits, shirts, pants and hats block UV rays better than regular clothing. Australia and New Zealand already regulate this clothing, and Cheryl Rosen, national director of CDA’s Sun Awareness Program, says the CDA is planning labelling for protective fabrics. A suggested retailer is Seasons UV Solutions (seasons-uv.com). They feature outfits that block harmful rays and have designs that darken as the sun strengthens, reminding parents to reapply sunscreen to kids’ exposed skin.