Playing outdoors, in the sun, is one of the great pleasures of childhood. Yet we are more aware than ever of the dangers of the sun’s rays, and their growing intensity means that delicate children’s skin needs the safest protection available. So play it safe in the sun.
The effect of sun on children’s skin
Adult skin vs. children’s skin
The benefits of exposure to the sun’s rays are well known, ranging from mental wellbeing to the formation of vitamin D, which is essential for our bone structure. Without proper protection, however, our skin is at risk of harm from UV radiation, specifically children’s skin which is more sensitive to the sun’s rays.
Children’s skin is different to adult skin in several important respects.
Children’s skin is only one-fifth as thick as adult skin, although it has the same number of layers. Its horny layer, the outermost layer of the epidermis which actively protects us from environmental influences and retains moisture, is thinner and its cells less tightly packed. As a result, its barrier function is less effective, and substances are absorbed more quickly and into deeper layers. Learn more about skin structure.
Pigmentation (melanin synthesis) in children’s skin is not fully developed. Melanin is the substance that gives our skin its natural colour, or pigmentation. When we go out into the sun, our cells produce extra melanin to help protect us from further damage – it’s what we call ‘tanning’.
In children’s skin, melanocytes (melanin-producing cells) are present but they are less active, leading to higher UV sensitivity.
Learn more about the effect of sun on the body’s skin.
For these reasons, it’s important to use products that are specially formulated for the needs of children’s skin. That is about not only providing the highest levels of protection, but also supporting and strengthening skin’s own defences.
Major causes and triggers of sunburn and sun damage for children´s skin
What is sunburn?
Sunburn is the acute sun damage caused by UV radiation, specifically UVB rays. It is a sign that UV radiation has damaged the genetic material, or DNA, of the skin cells. Over exposure to sunlight increases the risk of skin cancer.
Normal symptoms of sunburn are red and inflamed skin, sometimes accompanied by a general fatigue and mild dizziness.
If you have any concerns about your child’s skin, it is important to seek professional advice from a doctor , pharmacist or paediatrician.
What is UV radiation?
Sun emits UV light in three forms, ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet C (UVC). UVA rays are present almost constantly throughout the day. They penetrate deep into skin’s lower levels and play a major role in long-term damage such as premature skin ageing, indirect DNA damage, PLE and eye and retina damage. UVB provides the energy skin needs to make vitamin D, but it is also responsible for acute sun damage including sunburn and direct DNA damage. UVC is blocked by the earth’s atmosphere and therefore does not reach the skin.
Read more about how sun affects skin.
High sun exposure and sunburn – setting young skin up for skin cancer
Traditionally, skin cancer has been associated with older age groups and the practice of ‘sun worship’. Recent statistics show that it is now the second most common cancer in young adults (15-34) in the UK (Cancer Research UK) and the most common in people aged 15-44 in Australia (Cancer Council Australia).
And studies now indicate that sunburn during childhood can double a person’s risk of skin cancer (J. Invest. Dermatol 2003).
Skin conditions and the sun
Certain situations and conditions can exacerbate the sun’s effects on children’s skin even further.
- Children with fair skin, red hair or freckles are more likely to get sunburn, because their skin produces less melanin, which helps protect against UV radiation. Read more about skin complexions
- Prescription acne medications can also make the skin more sensitive to sunlight.
- It is often recommended that children with prominent moles on the skin are protected from the sun given the potential for some moles to become cancerous.
Children from families with a history of skin cancer are at a higher risk of developing it themselves.
Understanding the differing levels of intensity of the sun can also help limit the effects of UV radiation on children’s skin.
- All children should stay out of the sun at peak hours between 11 am and 3 pm. This is when UVA and UVB rays travel a much shorter path through the earth’s atmosphere, and so are considerably stronger in intensity. Even sunscreens with high SPFs don’t filter 100% of UV rays, which can induce cell damage down to the epidermal layers of the skin.
- Babies should be kept out of direct sunlight.
- Even on cloudy days, UV levels can be high, with radiation being reflected by clouds to the ground.
Your doctor or pharmacist can advise on sun protection for specific needs.
Playing it safe with children in the sun
Sun protection for children´s skin
Given that UV damage and repeated sunburn during childhood have been proven to increase the risk of skin cancer later in life, it is crucial that children’s skin is properly protected.
The application of sunscreen is of key importance in helping keep all skin safe and healthy and for children’s skin it is especially important to use a sunscreen specifically developed for their needs.
In general, sunscreens for adults and children use both chemical and mineral filters to protect against UVA and UVB rays. These work in very different ways. Chemical filters absorb the UV radiation and then release that energy as thermal radiation, which creates the sensation of warmth. Mineral filters, which are normally inorganic mineral pigments, reflect or scatter the UV radiation that reaches their surface, but do not allow it to penetrate the skin.
The protective barrier that mineral filters create makes them highly suitable for protecting the skin of babies, small children and anyone with extremely sun sensitive intolerant skin.
Children’s skin requires very high SPF protection with UVA and UVB filters. Ideally, given their active lives, sunscreen should be water resistant.
Sensitive skins may react to certain ingredients so it is a good idea to avoid colourants and perfumes and ideally look for clinical evidence of tolerability. Eucerin Kids Sun Spray SPF 50+ is specifically designed for the needs of children´s delicate skin.
Preventing sun damage of children’s skin
There are many ways to help prevent children’s skin from being damaged by UV radiation. Keeping them covered and avoiding exposure to the sun are of course the two best options, however these are not always possible.
Other practical day-to-day ideas:
- Choose clothes that are thickly woven and offer the most coverage – think about covering the neck, arms, chest and legs
- Use very high SPFs (ideally SPF 50+)
- Take a hat with a wide brim and sunglasses
- Pack plenty of water to drink
- Think about creating shade with a sun umbrella or tent
Healthy food can help. Recent studies have shown that certain foods help to reduce sun damage to the skin. Regularly eating carotenoids (red, yellow and orange vegetables and fruit) over a long period can help protect against sunburn and strengthen the skin's natural defences. Similar results have been achieved with diets high in omega fats (olive oil, oily fish), vitamin C and E and flavonoids, and equally low in dairy and red meat.
Correct application of sunscreen
Studies show that people generally use only a quarter of the sunscreen they actually need. The optimal routine is to:
- Be generous when applying sunscreen to children’s skin
- Apply before going out into the sun (20 minutes before exposure), giving the sunscreen time to be absorbed by the skin.
- Make sure the face, including ears and neck, are thoroughly and thickly covered. Even adults’ facial skin is highly sensitive to the sun. Read more about the effect of sun on facial skin.
- Pay particular attention to areas that are often forgotten, like the knees and tops and backs of feet.
- Add another layer 30 minutes later, to provide full coverage and protection.
- Reapply every 2 hours, especially after swimming, sweating and towelling.
Soothing children´s skin after sun exposure
Prevention is best when it comes to reducing the effects of the sun. However, once the skin has been exposed to too much sun, you can take certain measures.
Rehydrate. Drink plenty of water to rehydrate the skin.
Use a sunscreen that helps soothe sun-exposed skin. Active ingredient Glycyrrhetinic Acid has been proven to support natural regeneration of skin that has been damaged by UV light. This is combined in Eucerin Kids Sun Spray 50+ products with natural antioxidant Licochalcone A, which helps prevent the formation of free radicals.
For cases of sunburn, particularly in children or babies, consult a pharmacist or doctor immediately.