10 Tips for Protecting Your Children from the Sun

There is far more to protecting children from excessive sun exposure than covering them with clothing and telling them to play in the shade. A wet T-shirt or the shade of a building with bright blue sky directly above provides very little protection, for example.

Here is what you should know:

1. Conventional wisdom is merely a start.

Yes, avoid the midday sun, shield infants in strollers and carriages, and apply sunscreens, and go indoors immediately when a child’s skin begins to redden.

2. Clothing is important.

Most summer clothing and beachwear offers little protection and, worse, gives false security. Protection depends on fabric, color, and tightness of weave. The darker the fabric and the tighter the weave, the more protective it is. Dark colors absorb UV rays; dark blue denim is "sunproof." However, such garments are uncomfortable in hot weather. Hold garments up to the light; the less you can see through them, the better.

3. Clothing should be loose and not be wet.

Proper clothing is the first line of defense. The greater the distance between clothing and skin, the better the protection; even several millimeters of space is beneficial. In terms of sun protection factor (SPF) number (see TenTips: the ABCs of Sunscreens), a white cotton T-shirt has an SPF of about 7 when dry and 5 when damp; generally, wetness reduces the SPF by about one-third. (An SPF of 15 is considered minimum protection.) A dry white polyester polo shirt has an SPF of about 31 but when stretched across the shoulders the SPF drops to 9. Nylon stockings are about SPF 2.

4. Special sun protective clothing is widely available.

Many manufacturers produce well-vented garments with long sleeves, long pants and accessories to protect the neck and head. These garments have SPFs of 30 or more, dry rapidly when wet, and are considered stylish. Much of such clothing is sold through catalogues and websites but is increasingly available in stores.

5. Consider washing clothing in "laundry additives."

These are newly developed substances that are added to clothing being laundered in the washing machine. These substances enhance the sun protective factor of the garment, do not harm garments, and remain protective for many washes. Search "laundry additives" on the web for information on various products.

6. Any old hat won’t do.

Some straw hats have SPFs of 3-6. Baseball caps shield the forehead and part of the nose from the sun but not the lower face, ears, and neck. Ideally, hats should have a four to five-inch brim extending around the entire circumference. And even such hats do not shield the face from reflected UV radiation from water, sand, concrete, and white-painted surfaces.

7. Getting out of the sun means more than just not seeing the sun.

Sitting in the shade under a large leafy tree provides much more protection than being in the shade of a building with the sky visible above. Fluffy white clouds reduce radiation merely 20%. Large, beach-type umbrellas are somewhat helpful -- but not much -- on the beach.

8. Choose ground covers of grass or dirt, when possible.

White sand reflects most of the radiation reaching it, and water, depending on the angle of the sun, waves, and other factors, reflects up to 80%. The shade of a beach umbrella may decrease radiation by only 50%. Reflected radiation is particularly harmful because it is additive to direct radiation.

9. Individuals with dark skin are not immune from sun damage.

True, they are less at risk than fair-skinned, light-eyed, red- or blond-haired people. However, sun-related skin problems can occur in dark-skinned individuals, are often not looked for because of a false sense of security, and are difficult to detect.

10. Medications children (and adults) take may increase sensitivity to the sun.

The list includes substances taken orally -- ibuprofen and some antibiotics, for example -- and substances applied to the skin -- some anti-acne medications, for example. The symptoms include skin rashes and exaggerated sun reactions. Reactions generally occur within 24 hours and are usually related to the amount of the substance used and the intensity of sun exposure. Check medications with your health care providers.

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