Despite my best efforts, my seven-year-old got her first sunburn of the season—how serious is this? And what’s the best way to soothe her hot, pink skin? Sure, burns can be uncomfortable, but don’t worry about a one-off like this too much—it’s ongoing sun exposure that happens over years that can damage skin, suppress the immune system and increase cancer risk. We all need some sun exposure to get vitamin D, but just a few minutes every day is enough. (Even better: Protect their skin and give vitamin D drops.)
Kids have more of a chance of developing sun damage the longer they’re outdoors (midday is the most intense time) and if they have fair skin, moles and a family history of skin cancer. There are so many different products out there, but I prefer a barrier sunscreen containing zinc or titanium, which physically blocks the sun’s rays. Go for SPF 30 or higher, and ensure it protects against UVA and UVB rays (if your child has very sensitive skin, opt for a PABA-free formula). Apply a thick layer of sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before kids go outside and reapply at least every two hours, but more frequently if your kid is playing in water or is sweating.
If a burn does happen, run cool water over the skin for at least 15 minutes, longer if possible, or try a cool bath. Do not use ice— it can actually cause a cold burn. The idea here is to slowly lower the skin’s temperature. Cover the burn with cold-water-soaked clean towels to keep it moist, cool and sterile. If the burn is severe, blisters appear (these generally show up within 24 hours after the burn) or is extremely painful, see your doctor. For basic burns, ibuprofen and pure aloe vera may help reduce pain or swelling, but do not apply any other medicine, cream, ointment or even food product (no butter!) to the skin—they can actually make the burn worse. In the days post-burn, make sure to keep the skin moisturized and remind your kid not to pick or peel it.
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