We all need some sun exposure — it’s the top source of vitamin D, which helps our bodies absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones. But it doesn’t take much time in the sun for most people to get the vitamin D they need. And repeated unprotected exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause skin damage, eye damage, immune system suppression, and skin cancer. Even people in their twenties can develop skin cancer. Most kids get much of their lifetime sun exposure before age 18, so it’s important for parents to teach them how to enjoy fun in the sun safely. Taking the right precautions can greatly reduce your child’s chance of developing skin cancer.
First, seek shade when the sun is at its highest overhead and therefore strongest (usually from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the northern hemisphere). If kids are in the sun during this time, be sure to apply and reapply protective sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that all kids — regardless of their skin tone — wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Although dark skin has more protective melanin and tans more easily than it burns, tanning is a sign of sun damage. Dark-skinned kids also can get painful sunburns. Most sun damage occurs as a result of incidental exposure during day-to-day activities, not from being at the beach. Even on cloudy, cool, or overcast days, UV rays travel through the clouds and reflect off sand, water, and even concrete. Clouds and pollution don’t filter out UV rays, and they can give a false sense of protection. This “invisible sun” can cause unexpected sunburn and skin damage. Often, kids are unaware that they’re developing a sunburn on cooler or windy days because the temperature or breeze keeps skin feeling cool on the surface.
One of the best ways to protect your family from the sun is to cover up and shield skin from UV rays. Be sure that clothes will screen out harmful UV rays by placing your hand inside the garments and making sure you can’t see it through them. Because infants have thinner skin and underdeveloped melanin, their skin burns more easily than that of older kids. The best protection for babies under 6 months of age is shade, so they should be kept out of the sun whenever possible. If your baby must be in the sun, dress him or her in clothing that covers the body, including hats with wide brims to shadow the face. Use an umbrella to create shade.
Sun exposure damages the eyes as well as the skin. Even 1 day in the sun can result in a burned cornea (the outermost, clear membrane layer of the eye). Cumulative exposure can lead to cataracts (clouding of the eye lens, which leads to blurred vision) later in life. The best way to protect eyes is to wear sunglasses. Purchase sunglasses with labels ensuring that they provide 100% UV protection.