Sun Smarts for Small Fries

Sun Protection for Active Kids
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A friend recently asked me to recommend a dermatologist. She needs some areas of skin cancer removed from her face. Like most of us parent-types—myself included—she used little or no sunscreen as a kid.

"We literally had one container of sunscreen in the house," she reminisced. "And we kids weren't allowed to use it. My mom saved it for herself."

My friend noted that even if she had used the sacred vial, sunscreens back then were so weak as to be nearly worthless.

It's a wonder our generation survived so well. Just think, we grew up without sunscreen, car seats, or bike helmets, to name a few safety items considered essential for today's kids.

Thankfully, we can do a much better job of protecting our children from the sun than our parents did. And it's an important task, since the American Academy of Dermatology advises that even one or two bad sunburns can significantly increase a child's risk for developing skin cancer later in life.

Of course your kids look cute with a tan. But that's the last thing you want. A tan is a sign of sun damage, not a healthy glow.

Oh, Mr. Sunshine
Sunscreen is wonderful stuff, but it shouldn't be your family's first line of defense. Before glopping on the stuff, dermatologists recommend that you:

Limit outdoor activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sure, that's great advice, but get real. Who's really going to do this? That said, at least save swimming and other sun-filled activities for later in the afternoon.

Don't have a watch? Use the "shadow rule." If your shadow is shorter than you are tall, head for the shade, not the sun.

Wear protective clothing. This advice seems more realistic, although you also need to be cool and comfortable (see "Making Shade").

Don't be fooled by cloudy days. Eighty percent of the sun's ultraviolet rays can penetrate clouds.

Be especially careful near water or snow, and above tree line. Snow is even more reflective than water, and when it's cold you're more likely to forget about sunscreen. Also, the sun's damaging rays become 4 percent more intense with every 1,000 feet of elevation gain. Apply sunscreen to the undersides of noses, chins, and ears to avoid a sneaky, painful sunburn from sun reflected off snow.

Making Shade
When it comes to sun exposure, think of clothes as a big band-aid to protect your family from the sun.

Start with a wide-brimmed hat for everyone. Faces are one of the most exposed areas of our skin, and hats provide a great barrier. Especially good for kids are those little legionnaires' hats, with a lengthy flap that covers not only the scalp but the back of the neck as well. These hats come in many styles and sizes, starting with a selection for infants. FlapHappy makes a good selection. This summer my six-year-old has switched from Beau Geste to baseball caps, which leave the back of his neck and ears exposed. This is less than ideal but I don't complain; I just rub in the lotion. At least I don't have to nag him to grab a hat. Let your child help decide which hat is right for him or her, but do insist on one. Babies, of course, love to take hats on and off, especially off. Once they're adept with their hands, even straps are ineffective. Just keep putting the hat back on, and one of these days your tot will get the idea. Until then, try to direct your baby's attention to something other than the hat.

The next great clothing protection is a shirt. Shoulders get burned so easily, so Will often wears a shirt while swimming. The bad news is that white or light-colored shirts—which make sense in hot weather—don't provide enough protection. A wet, light-colored shirt allows nearly as much sun exposure as does bare skin. If you want to save your child's skin, think dark colors, long sleeves, and long pants. This isn't practical in brutally hot weather, obviously, so you'll have to compromise. Some companies make photoprotective clothing; some especially for kids. This fabric contains built-in sun protection. One such line is Alpha 100+.

Last but not least, don't forget the sunglasses, even for the youngest members of your family. When they're adults, your kids will blame you for all manner of things, so don't let cataracts be one of them.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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