Julia B. Ballance, MD
Medical Director, Palmetto Health Children's Hospital Outpatient Center
Nothing can ruin your family’s “fun in the sun” faster than one of your loved ones suffering from severe sunburn. Because children are especially vulnerable, we’ve put together some tips to help you protect them during the sunny summer months and beyond.
Facts about sunburn
- Most skin damage from the sun occurs in childhood. Just one severe sunburn in childhood increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer later in life. But even if you’ve experienced sunburns in the past, it’s never too late to be diligent about taking better care of your skin.
- Sunburns affect everyone. Fair-skinned people are at the highest risk. But even people with dark colored skin, who are naturally less sensitive to the sun, still are at risk for sunburn and should use precautions.
- It’s easy to be fooled by overcast, cooler days. Even then, your child is being exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays. Try to avoid peak sun time, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- An unprotected child can be sunburned in just 10 to 15 minutes of outdoor play, even on cloudy days.
- The effects of sun exposure may take six hours to be apparent.
- Use a sunscreen. Apply it liberally about 20 minutes before going out into the sunlight; then reapply it every two hours, even on cloudy days, and more often if spending time in or on the water. We recommend a sunscreen made for children with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15. You should use a sunscreen that is broad-spectrum, meaning that it protects against not only UVB rays (the kind that cause sunburn), but also UVA rays (the kind that cause skin cancer). Look for ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone, meradimate (methyl anthanilate), ecamsule (Mexoryl SX), dioxybenzone or avobenzone to ensure the best UVA protection. Be sure the sunscreen is not out of date.
- Your child cannot get a sunburn from sitting in or near a window; however, UV rays still penetrate glass—so use sunscreen when traveling moderate to long distances by car.
- If you do not have a sunscreen, dress your child in protective clothing—preferably lightweight cotton clothing with long sleeves—including a brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection.
- Seek shade whenever possible; and beware that UV rays will reflect off sand, water, snow, etc.
- Keep babies under six months of age out of direct sunlight. If this is not possible, a small amount of sunscreen may be used on small areas.
- In the event your protections fail and your child is struck with sunburn anyway, here are some things you can do.
- If the sunburn is mild (painful but not blistering), try applying a cool compress or giving your child frequent cool baths. Showering is not recommended, as the jets of water can irritate the burn.
- Medicines such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen may be effective in reducing the pain.
- Be wary of over-the-counter ointments and creams, as these can lead to skin irritation. Older children may find aloe to be soothing.
- Keep your child hydrated. A sunburn can cause fluid loss.
- If your baby is under 1 year of age, call your doctor. A baby’s sunburn could be an emergency.
- If your child is more than 1 year old, consult a doctor if there is intense pain, blistering, headache, nausea, fainting or a fever higher than 101 F.
Finally, don’t be alarmed when the healing burn starts to peel. This is just part of the normal healing process.
For same-day care for minor illnesses such as colds and allergies, visit Palmetto Health’s Mobile Clinic.