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Sun Safety

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Sun safety is today recognized as a vital part of preventative healthcare - for young children and for adults alike. Parents should make sure that they and their children are protected from the damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun whenever they are outdoors for extended periods of time. This is accomplished through the use of protective clothing and gear, as well as liberal application of sun screen and sun block products. People who use sunscreen from an early age can prevent lifelong sun damage and skin cancer from occurring later in their adult years.

boy getting sunscreen onGenerally speaking, clothing will offer more protection from the sun when it covers more skin surface, so long-sleeved shirts will provide more protection than short-sleeved versions. However, the sun's rays can penetrate thin fabrics, so long-sleeved garments should not be relied upon to provide adequate protection simply because they are long-sleeved. Special sun garments (e.g., swimsuits, shirts, hats), rated with regard to their sun protection capability, are available for purchase, and may be worthwhile expenditures for children who are outside frequently.

A hat is essential sun protection gear. However, as is the case with regard to clothing, not all hats will provide adequate sun protection. Broad brimmed hats which shade the neck and ears as well as the forehead are preferable to baseball hats which only shade one angle of the body while exposing others. Many fabric hats are not made with sun protection in mind and so a sun burn can occur right through them! For maximum protection, children should wear a hat which offers substantial sun protection and which shades their entire body.

Sunglasses are another essential aspect of sun protection. Sunglasses generally offer dark and/or polarized lenses through which the glare of the sun is reduced, resulting in less need to squint when it is bright outside. Effective sun glasses will also provide protection from the sun's ultraviolet rays. These two aspects of sunglasses (glare protection and ultraviolet protection are independent of each other, so it is important to make sure that both are present when purchasing new sunglasses.

Sun block or sun screen products are widely available and come in a range of sun protection strengths and form factors, including creams, ointments and spray products. These products are rated with regard to their SPF (sun protection factor), with higher numbers indicating more substantial sun protection. Essentially, a sun block product's SPF rating tells you how much longer you can be outside wearing the product before burning then you could without wearing the product. If you would typically experience a sunburn after 10 minutes of sun exposure without sun block, then you would have up to 150 minutes of protection time prior to burning if you wore sun block rated SPF 15. Sun block products should be applied liberally as directed on their packaging, and should be reapplied frequently if children are sweating or swimming. Look for products with SPF of 45 to 50 or greater, and which are resistant to coming off in the water for maximum protection.

Many people are under the impression that sunburn risk is only something to worry about during sunny days, but it is now recognized that the harmful ultraviolet components of sunlight will penetrate even cloudy skys. Therefore, it is important for parents to make sure their children wear appropriate sun block every day as a habitual part of their self-care hygiene routines. At this age, children are often playing sports or playing with the neighbors more independently. Caregivers need to teach children the importance of remembering to use sunscreen regularly and appropriately. Newer formulas come in spray bottles as well as tubes to make sun block application easier for everyone.

Sun blocks and sunscreen products can be formulated in a variety of ways, and apparently some formulations are more dangerous than others in terms of long term health risks. The Environmental Working Group website provides a report rating various sunscreen products based on their safety profile which is well worth reading.