How Parents Can Practice Good Sun Safety
For Einstein pediatrician Denise E. Wynne-Baker, MD, the treatment of children is, of course, her most immediate priority. But along with treatment comes another pressing priority: prevention.
Around this time of year, and heading into summer, one concern is sun exposure, and preventing the long-term damage that can result. “My goal is to treat,” Dr. Wynne-Baker says, “but also to educate my patients, and to prevent diseases—and having sun protection is exactly what’s going to prevent skin cancer and conditions like cataracts.”
Kids aren’t going to experience those conditions now, but that’s what’s so important about sun protection, she says. “Most of the damage that’s done to children, you will not see until later on in life, when they’re adults. It’s important to protect them now because the damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays is going to accumulate over a period of time—and that causes problems.”
Most of the sun-related damage done to the body’s fragile outer layer happens in childhood, says Dr. Wynne-Baker, who practices at Einstein Healthcare Network’s Einstein Germantown Pediatrics and came to the Network in 2001. “So when the kids are on the beach or at the pool enjoying themselves, that’s when the damage is occurring. All of that starts early, and parents, I am sure, in some cases don’t know.”
“Pink and Tan is Not Cute”
Dr. Wynne-Baker, who likes to give medical advice to kids in jingle form, tells them this: “Pink and tan is not cute and it will eventually give you the boot.”
Which brings up a point … the much desired “healthy” look of a tan. In fact, a tan is not harmless, and it is far from healthy. A tan is a burn, Dr. Wynne-Baker says.
Here’s how sun damage works.
There are three different types of ultraviolet rays, says Dr. Wynne-Baker: UVA, UVB and UVC. The earth’s ozone layer shields us from UVC rays, but UVA and UVB easily penetrate the atmosphere. “When those ultraviolet rays hit your skin, they go in and cause damage, which increases the melanin (a pigment) in your skin, and that comes to the surface,” she says. “It’s what tells you that you have had some damage from ultraviolet rays.”
UVA and UVB cause different sorts of skin damage. UVA are long rays and they penetrate deep into the skin. The long-term effects include wrinkling of the skin and/or early aging. UVB rays, on the other hand, hit the surface of your skin. UVB rays, Dr. Wynne-Baker says, are the ones that cause skin cancers.
Every child is vulnerable to sun damage, she adds, regardless of race. Pale redheads, for example, may burn more easily, but children with darker complexions will also burn, if exposed to the sun too long without protection.
Some protection is pretty basic, and easy to implement. Broad-brimmed hats, for example, can protect the face and ears. A baseball cap provides some facial protection, but the ears, which can burn easily, remain exposed. And, says Dr. Wynne-Baker, because so many kids wear their caps backwards, their faces are fully exposed to the sun’s rays. “You’re getting a lot of exposure.”
Sunglasses with UV protection are also important, she adds. Wrap-arounds are best. And try to spend more time in the shade than in direct sunlight.
Another simple form of sun protection is the use of sunscreen or sunblock. Look for sunblock with an SPF factor of at least 15 to 30, she says. For kids with fair skin, you can go higher. Sunblock with zinc oxide, she says, provides an added layer of protection. Apply it to all exposed skin surfaces in children 6 months and older. Make sure that it is broad spectrum—providing protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
For children younger than 6 months, she adds, “we do recommend that you protect them with clothing covering the skin, hats and sunglasses.”
Using sunblock is never a “one and done” proposition, says Dr. Wynne-Baker. Apply it liberally to exposed skin, and re-apply it every two hours. If kids spend time in the water or are sweating profusely, apply it more often. Avoid sunblock with insect repellent, she adds, because you can apply it only once. “You can’t keep applying that every two hours.”
For all ages, additional protection would include shirts and slacks in a tightly woven fabric. 100 percent cotton is effective and comfortable.
If you and the kids can’t remember it all, Dr. Wynne-Baker makes it easy. Once again, it’s a jingle: “You don’t have to guess … remember S, S and S.”
“The first one stands for shade,” she says. “Avoid the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest, and wear hats and lightweight clothing. The second is sunglasses. And last but not least would be sunblock or sunscreen with a protective factor of at least 15. It blocks out 93 to 95 percent of ultraviolet rays.”
In short, she says: “Be cool, have fun, but be careful in the sun.”