How to keep your kids sun safe this summer

The sunshine and hot weather are a much needed chance for kids to play outside in the fresh air. But children and babies are particularly vulnerable to the sun's harmful rays, so it's important to protect their skin and make sure they enjoy the sun safely.

What is sun safety?

Many of us perceive having a tan as a sign of health. In fact, even the slightest darkening of the skin from the sun is an indication that the skin is damaged. Infants and young children are at especially high risk for sun damage, explains Dr Sharryn Gardner, paediatrician and clinical adviser to children's health app, Juno.

"We might think children look healthy with a suntan and a crop of freckles, but tanning is the body's attempt to protect itself from any more skin damage caused by the sun," she says. "A tan and freckles on your child's skin are both markers of sun damage. Children have very delicate skin, and the earlier they are exposed to the sun, the more irreversible damage it causes." So, sun safety is understanding how the sun can harm our skin and taking steps to prevent it by applying sunscreen.

Why is the sun harmful?

The sun emits two main types of ultraviolet (UV) rays. UVA rays, which make up around 95% of these, penetrate deeply into the skin and cause premature aging. The other 5% are UVB rays, which affect the outermost layers of the skin and cause sunburn.

Damage to the skin caused by UV exposure is the main cause of melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer. Just one instance of blistering sunburn during childhood more than doubles the risk of developing melanoma later in life.

It's thought that we get around a quarter of our total lifetime exposure to sun before the age of 18. Damage builds over time from the very first time you get sunburn, and the more you tan and burn, the higher your skin cancer risk.

"The severity of melanoma is based on how often we're exposed to the sun and how long the damage has been present," Dr Gardner says. "We used to see skin cancers more commonly in older people, but now it's becoming much more common in younger people."

The good news is that it is preventable.

How to keep your kids sun-safe

There are some easy but important steps you can take to keep children safe while they're out in the sun.

Keep to the shade

The sun is strongest and most powerful at around midday, so try to stay in shaded areas between 11am and 3pm. Babies should be kept in complete shade all the time. Use a parasol, umbrella or canopy where possible, or find shade underneath a tree.

Cover up with clothing

Dress children so as much of their skin is covered as possible. Avoid vest tops or sundresses if kids are going to be outside a lot, because the shoulders are a prime area for sunburn. Light, loose-fitting, cotton clothes can help keep them cool but do bear in mind that children can burn through very loose-woven clothes - an indication is if you can see the light through them when you hold them up to a window. As an alternative, lots of suppliers now offer specialist sun-protective clothes which dry easily.

Wear a hat

A wide-brimmed hat offers extra protection from the sun. Bucket or surfer-style hats are a good option. Better still are sun protector hats that have a large peak and a skirt of fabric around the back and sides, as they shade the face, neck and shoulders.

Wear sunglasses

Wearing sunglasses protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVA and UVB rays can also affect our eyes, but good-quality sunglasses can help protect eyes from damage and glare. Look out for a CE, UV 400 or British Standard Mark, as these indicate that sunglasses provide good UV protection. Wraparound sunglasses are great for kids as they stop the sun from getting through the gaps between the frame and arms of the glasses.

Apply sunscreen

Applying sunscreen to reduce your risk of UV damage is the most important aspect of staying safe in the sun, but many people find the different letters, numbers and ratings on sunscreen bottles confusing. Two thirds of Brits don't apply enough, meaning we're not getting the full benefit of sunscreen - and neither are our children.

What does SPF mean?

All sunscreens in the UK must have an SPF rating. "SPF stands for sun protection factor. The SPF number is the level of protection the sunscreen provides against UVB rays," Dr Gardner explains. "SPF numbers are based on how long we can sit in the sun before burning versus without sunscreen."

How long does sunscreen last?

Sunscreen with an SPF of 30 means that - if it's applied correctly - it will take 30 times longer for your skin to burn than it would with no sunscreen at all. The higher the SPF, the better, but the crucial point is that it must be applied correctly to offer protection.

How often should you reapply sunscreen to kids?

You should apply sunscreen generously to children's exposed skin twenty minutes before they go out in the sun, then reapply once they're outside. It's difficult to quantify how often is enough, because children are different sizes, so make sure you slather it on in a thick layer. Pay careful attention to areas that are often missed, like the nose and cheeks, around the hairline, ears, neck and the top of the feet.

Which sunscreen should you use?

"When choosing a sunscreen, always opt for one that's SPF 30 or higher and make sure it's labelled as broad-spectrum sun protection," Dr Gardner adds. "This means that it can protect your skin from both UVB and UVA rays. Originally sunscreen only protected against UVB, but regulations have become stricter in recent years, given the seriousness of sun damage."

Look out for the UVA rating on the packaging - a star rating out of a maximum of five - which tells you how well it shields against UVA rays.

Bear in mind that when a child sweats, gets wet, or rubs against something - like if they've been in a car seat for a while or when they towel off after being on the beach - their sunscreen will also come off, so reapply regularly.

Sun safety at school

During term time kids mostly spend time at school. Between March and September, they are in someone else's care throughout the part of the day when the sun is at its strongest.

Alarmingly, almost 40% of children have been sunburnt while at school, but as of September 2020, primary schools in England have a mandatory duty to include sun safety as part of their PHSE curriculum.

How to explain sun safety to a child

Skin cancer charity Skcin, whose aim is raising awareness of prevention and early detection, provides resources for schools and parents to help teach children about the risks of sun exposure. Its CEO, Marie Tudor, lobbied the government to make sun safety teaching to primary schoolchildren compulsory. She says educating youngsters is a proven way of tackling high rates of preventable skin cancer.

"We should take our lead from Australia, where they started sun safe teaching in all schools a few decades ago. Children who have grown up in a generation of education are now adults for whom skin cancer statistics are coming down," she says.

From March to September, Tudor adds, parents should apply sunscreen to their children before school. But that can only provide so much protection as it will have worn off by playtime. Schools should have a plan in place, therefore, to ensure pupils have access to sunscreen while they're at school, so they can apply it during the day when they're going to be outside.

"It's a partnership between the parents and schools. Sun cream has to be on the premises, whether that's parents sending sun cream in with their children, or the schools providing it themselves," Tudor adds.

The five 'S's of sun safety

A simple way to remember these steps and to teach youngsters about the importance of sun safety is 'the five S’s'.

  • Slip - slip on some protective clothes like long-sleeved shirts or wide brimmed hats.
  • Slop - slop on some sunscreen.
  • Slap - slap on a hat.
  • Slide - slide on some sunglasses.
  • Seek - seek shade.

Up to 90% of skin cancers are preventable, but a general lack of awareness of sun safety among adults is a concern, says Tudor. "We're trying to evoke behaviour change because we know many adults lack the knowledge, so we have to start with the next generation."

The best way to instil sun safety awareness in kids is to be a good role model yourself - so the steps outlined make sense for everyone to follow, young or old.

Read next
newnav-downnewnav-up