Sun Protection for Children's Skin

Sue Chung Health Guide
  • Each week, Health and Beauty Expert Sue Chung will discuss skin health topics suggested by members of the HealthCentral community. To ask Sue a question, send an email to

    Reader's Question: I've heard that sunscreen may cause skin irritation for children's sensitive skin. It can't be that bad for my kids to play outdoors and get a little bit tan, right?

    Sue's Response: Think of it this way: We constantly tell our children to be safe. Put on your seatbelt. Look both ways before crossing the street. Don't take candy from strangers. Wear a helmet. Wear kneepads. Don't do drugs. Essentially, all any parent wants is to protect their child from injury and pain. We want all children to be able to live healthy, disease-free lives.

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    However, the message is still not loud enough that children must be protected from the sun. Every summer, I see children running around sporting deep tans and peeling noses. While this may seem like a rite of childhood, the truth is that children's skin is far more delicate than adult skin and their moles and freckles continue to develop as they go through adolescence.

    Studies show that just one serious sunburn before the age of 18 nearly doubles the risk of developing skin cancer as an adult. Between 1976 and 2003, the rate of non-melanoma skin cancers roughly tripled in women under 40. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, these types of cancers are responsible for approximately 2,800 deaths per year.

    How to protect your children from the sun

    Whether you're a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle, chances are you will spend time with the children in your life throughout the warmer months. Here are a few words of advice to keep in mind as spring approaches and children begin to spend a longer amount of time outdoors.

    - Despite the myths, sunscreen is safe for your children.

    In the late 1990s, a bogus email floated around the Internet warning parents of a case in which a young boy was blinded when sunscreen got into his eyes. In addition, I mentioned in my column on tanning beds that many people claim (falsely) that the sun is the only source of essential vitamin D. Stories like these cause people to doubt the efficacy and safety of sunscreen. Keep in mind, however, that the American Academy of Ophthalmology states that sunscreen is a mild irritant to the eyes. At most, it can cause a corneal abrasion, which has no long-term effects. If your child does get sunscreen in his eyes, rinse with cold water and check with an eye doctor if pain persists.

    - Sunscreen is not an excuse for prolonged sun exposure. 

    A few years ago, the European Institute of Oncology in Italy conducted a survey that demonstrated a higher incidence of sun-induced moles among children with a high use of sunscreen. The study found that once parents applied sunscreen to their children, they assumed that the sun would not cause damage. As a result, they did not curb the time their children spent in the sun. Sunscreen can help prevent sun damage immensely, but using it does not create a danger-free force field around children.

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    - Apply sunscreen regularly and generously.

    Whenever your children plan to be in the sun for longer than 30 minutes, apply sunscreen. Use generous amounts and make sure to reapply every few hours, especially after spending time in water and toweling dry. Days at amusement parks, outdoor picnics and school field trips should be kept in mind since the sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

    Practical, Kid-Friendly Sun Protection

    Hawaiian Tropic makes a handy sunscreen bottle with a removable travel size bottle for your child to carry in his or her pocket.


    Companies like Coppertone and Bull Frog provide fun, spray-on sunscreens that can save on time.

    If your child's skin is particularly sensitive, stick with physical sunscreens like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Unlike chemical sunscreens, which get absorbed by the skin, physical sunscreens coat the skin and do not get absorbed.


    California Baby No-Fragrance SPF 30+ Sunscreen Lotion and Avalon Organics Baby Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 18 are specially formulated for young children. Remember to apply to lips and ears as well. 
Published On: March 07, 2007