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Keeping Kids Safe in the Sun

Posted on May 24, 2021

Unprotected exposure to the sun poses risks of skin damage, eye problems and other health concerns for children. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Rachel Dawkins, M.D., a pediatrician who is medical director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine Clinics at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, tells us why it is important to protect kids from getting sunburned.

Dawkins enjoys being at the beach or pool, but she warns that we need to protect kids’ skin from harmful UV rays. Most of a person’s lifetime sun exposure occurs during childhood. Damage from sun exposure is cumulative, meaning that damage collects over time and can even lead to skin cancer.

What are some general tips to protect children from the sun?

  • Seek shade and avoid mid-day sun exposure when UV rays are strongest.
  • Cover up with long sleeves and long pants. Tightly woven fabrics are the best.
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim. Baseball caps protect the face but not the ears and neck.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes from UV rays.
  • Apply sunscreen any time your child will be outside for any amount of time — even if it’s cloudy or not hot.

How do parents know what type of sunscreen to use?

Pick a water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 and above.

Sunscreen should be applied at least 15 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied at least every two hours. It should be put on every part of the skin including ears, nose and tops of feet. If your child won’t wear a hat, I recommend putting sunscreen on their scalp especially near their part.

What about infants younger than 6 months?

Sunscreen is technically not recommended for babies under 6 months old. The idea is to avoid sun exposure as much as possible. Keep the baby in shade — remember that strollers and tents only block about 50% of UV light. Make sure your child wears clothing that covers as much skin as possible and a hat with a wide brim.

You can put sunscreen on infants but they absorb more of the chemicals based on their surface area to weight ratio — so best to keep them from the sun if possible. If this is not possible, then don’t forget sunscreen!

How do I know if my child is getting sunburned and what should I do if they do get too much sun?

Unprotected skin can be damaged by the sun’s rays in as little as 15 minutes, but it can take up to 12 hours for the skin to show the full effects. If your child is starting to look “a little pink” — it’s time to get out of the sun.

If your child has a mild sunburn, cool water or compresses may soothe the skin. Acetaminophen can help with pain. But most important, avoid sun exposure until skin is healed. Kids can lose extra fluid in the sun so make sure to offer a lot of water to keep your child hydrated.

If your child has a more severe sunburn with blisters, fever, chills, headache or other flu-like symptoms, call your pediatrician.

Anything else?

I know we are talking about sun safety, but I also want to remind everyone to think about water safety. It’s the perfect time of year to enroll your child in swim lessons, and we have great information on water safety.

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital experts. Visit each Monday for the latest report. You also can explore more advice from Rachel Dawkins, M.D.

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