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Sun Safety for Children

How to enjoy the summer sun whilst protecting your children’s skin.

by Dr. Sharryn Gardner

Most doctors have a bugbear or something that makes them cringe. Some of these can be most unexpected though usually they are things like toenails or eyes or something. Mine is sunburn. It makes me so ill that nursing staff direct me away from any cases (or even any parents attending with a child who themselves have sunburn. I feel nauseous, go pale and then faint.

Some of that is my own memories of my very Scottish skin turning salmon pink after alabaster and very quickly back again. Some of it is knowing the damage it does (I worked for 3 years in Oz and suncare was indoctrinated. I also developed temporary wrinkles which later vanished – phew!). It is 100% preventable and families often have no idea just how dangerous it is and that one sunburn doubles the risk of skin cancer and this only increases with each additional burn.

We might think that children look ‘healthy’ with a suntan and a crop of freckles. While they well might, each and every freckle is a marker of sun damage. The earlier children’s delicate skin is exposed to the sun, the more damage it does and they the longer they live with that damage. Cancer (melanoma in the case of skin) is caused primarily by how much damage (how severe and how often) and how long it’s been present. We used to see skin cancers in older people. It’s more and more common to see it in young women particularly. Sunbeds are certainly a part of this and there is at least some regulation of the industry now. Skin cancer occurs when tumour cells grow quickly – the body generally suppresses these. The more there are the harder that is.

The science of suncare.

You don’t even need a ’sunny’ day to get damage. 80% of harmful rays go straight through clouds. There are 2 types of ultraviolet rays (natural energy from the sun) which cause damage. You can’t see them – your skin sure can feel them. Delicate childrens’ (especially baby skin) is even more sat risk. We buy special gentle bubble baths and creams and then encourage sun exposure! We know how delicate and sensitive their skin is!

UVA and UVB are the two main wavelengths involved. UVA is said to largely cause ageing, where UVB largely causes burning. SPF numbers are based on how much longer we can sit in the sun before burning vs with no sunscreen. They are a multiple of the amount of time it would take with no sunscreen. U|VA causes tanning and when sunscreen offers protection against them they are called ‘broad-spectrum’. Originally sunscreen only protected against UVB. They are less intense though they penetrate more deeply to the lowest layer of the skin where skin cancers start. Tanning is the body’s attempt to protect itself from any more damage – not really such a sign of health!

Those years in Oz drummed good sun protection care into me. We have good advice here in the uk – it isn’t presented in such an accessible way though. They have Sid who used to Slip, Slop, Slap. He has got smarter now and now it’s Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide.

So what are these?

SLIP: Slip on some clothes. Ideally densely woven (some will have an SPF on them). Have a collar and longer arms and legs if possible.

SLOP: Slop own sunscreen. SPF 30+ in the UK (50+ in Oz) Broad spectrum and particularly focusing on areas often missed – backs of ears, backs of necks, behind knees. It should be applied 30 mins before going into the sun and allowed to dry in. It should be reapplied frequently and particularly after swimming

SLAP: Slap on a hat. A wide brimmed one which covers the face and neck. Some hats even have neck extensions to protect the neck.

SEEK: Seek some shade – especially in the middle of the day. Have lunch in the shade for example.

SLIDE: Slide on some shades. These should fully cover they eyes and have UV protection.

On top of this advice, we should remember that babies under 6 months should not be in direct sunlight and that in the middle of the day the sun is much stronger and where possible should be avoided.

Prevention is ALWAYS better than cure so don’t panic, just start now. 

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