Sun safety: Are you making these mistakes?

Here’s some advice so you and your child can become more sun savvy.

Photo courtesy of Antonioguillem/AdobeStock

By A. Yasmine Kirkorian, M.D.

According to new research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, many Americans make potentially harmful mistakes when putting on sunscreen. In fact, only one-third (33 percent) of the people observed in the study applied sunscreen to all exposed skin, and only 38 percent wore sun-protective clothing, hats or sunglasses. As adults, it’s easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just skip sunscreen a day or two. What harm could it really do?” But research shows childhood sun exposure is clearly correlated with an increased risk of melanoma in adulthood—especially for youths who get sunburns or use tanning beds.

I always tell parents that once your kids are teenagers, it is much harder to insist they follow safe sun practices, so ingraining knowledge and shielding their skin while they are young is crucial. Here’s some advice to set up you and your child for success by becoming more sun savvy.

What type of sunscreen should we use?

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 30. It’s equally important to select broad-spectrum sunscreen, which protects against long-wave ultraviolet A and short-wave ultraviolet B rays, the ones frequently linked to skin cancer. Parents also should opt for water-resistant options. Sunscreen sprays are more convenient for squirming kids, but they should be sprayed outdoors and never directly on to the child’s face. Instead, spray the product into your hand and then apply to your child’s face. Sunscreen sticks are less messy and are an easy option for very young children, and sunscreens with titanium and zinc oxide only are good choices for babies and those with sensitive skin.

When is my child old enough to wear sunscreen?

Babies older than 6 months should wear sunscreen, but I often caution parents that sun protection is multifaceted. Sunscreen should not be our only defense; it’s really just one piece of the puzzle. Using sun-protective clothing is critical, too. Young children should wear light-colored, lightweight, long-sleeve shirts and pants as well as hats with wide brims. For added protection, look for fabrics labeled as having sun or ultraviolet protection elements, which help block the sun’s radiation from passing through the garment.

What’s the most commonly underprotected part of the body?

Ears and the back of the neck are locations that frequently see overexposure, putting them at higher risk for skin cancer in the future. Make sure to thoroughly apply sunscreen in these locations and wear a wide-brimmed hat when possible.

What time of day are the sun’s rays the most powerful?

When possible, avoid sun exposure during peak hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. or select shaded play areas. Kids need to get outside and play, especially during the summertime when they aren’t as active with school routines.

How often do I need to reapply sunscreen?

This is one of the biggest mistakes we see, and it’s so easy to make when kids are out having fun. Reapply sunscreen every one to two hours and after water immersion or intense physical activity. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen on cloudy days and during road trips, too, as the sun’s rays can penetrate glass.

What should I do if my child gets a sunburn?

If the sunburn is severe—meaning the child has blisters, feels unwell or is in pain—seek medical attention. If it is not severe, parents can use soothing creams and Tylenol or other pain medication as guided by their pediatrician.

When should youth routinely see a dermatologist for skin checks?

Pediatric melanoma is very rare, but parents should bring their child to a dermatologist if they notice a changing mole, a mole that looks different from the others, a new or bleeding pink bump (that’s not a bug bite or pimple), or if the child has a parent or sibling with a history of melanoma.

The most important thing for parents to remember is that while skin cancer rarely happens during childhood, childhood sun exposure—especially sunburn—is a major risk factor for future development of melanoma. So, cover up, slather up and then get outside and enjoy summertime.

Yasmine Kirkorian, M.D., is a dermatologist in the Division of Dermatology at Children’s National Health System and assistant professor of dermatology and pediatrics at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Her interests and expertise include vascular birthmarks, neonatal dermatology, genetic skin disorders, inflammatory skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis, pigmented lesions (moles), acne and hyperhidrosis (increased sweating). Kirkorian earned a medical degree from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She completed residency training in dermatology at the Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine and her fellowship training in pediatric dermatology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Kirkorian lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and son, Hugo. She enjoys bike rides, swimming and playing outdoors while wearing proper sun protection.