It’s an overcast day at the park and my kids and I are having a familiar battle over sunscreen. In that I’m trying to smear it on their faces, and they’re wriggling to break free from the assault.
“It’s not even sunny out!” my preschooler shouts as she breaks free. And now I’m second guessing myself. Is it worth the fight? Is it full of chemicals anyway?
Figuring out how best to protect our children from the sun can seem daunting. This is partly because the market is so saturated with sun safety products, and there seems to be conflicting information about how best to keep UV rays at bay and when the sun is most dangerous.
So I reached out to two experts in skin care to find out the facts and myths around summertime sun safety and help Canadian parents be prepared.
Q: Before shelling out for the latest sunscreens and SPF rated clothing, what should parents know about minimizing kids’ UV exposure?
A: “The best thing people can do to protect themselves and their kids is to change their behaviour,” says Dr. Harvey Lui, a staff dermatologist at the B.C. Cancer Agency, and Professor of Dermatology and Skin Cancer at the University of British Columbia.
“I’m not telling people not to go outside. We’re asking people to do it sensibly,” he says.
The easiest and most affordable way to do that is to minimize exposure to the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and seek shade when you do go outside – especially at midday. That means finding parks with trees or canopies built into the play structure, and bringing umbrellas or tents to the beach.
Q: What’s your take on SPF rated clothing?
A: “SPF clothing is a great technology,” Lui says. “But … if you already have (any type of) tight-weave clothing, you will not burn.”
Since most swimsuit fabric is tightly woven, regular bathing suits tend to provide adequate protection on their own, he says.
The key is the coverage, so Lui recommends kids wear rash guard bathing suits that start at the neckline, and provide coverage down to the elbows and the knees.
Look for bucket hats with a brim that’s at least as wide as the palm of your hand, and don’t forget sunglasses – even for children (ones that wrap around the head are best).
Q: Can you expose your kids to too little sunlight?
A: Some exposure is needed to produce vitamin D, but that exposure should be before 11 a.m. and after 4 p.m., says Dr. Janice Heard, Community Paediatrician with Canadian Paediatric Society Public Education Advisory Committee.
Dr. Lui says the amount of sun you get on your face and hands a few times a week is usually enough to produce the Vitamin D you need.
“If you really want that extra dose of Vitamin D, it’s better to get it from your food, or in tablet or drop form,” he says.
Q: When it’s hot and sunny, should children be wearing light long sleeved shirts and pants, or shorts and T-shirts with sunscreen?
A: Long sleeved clothing and hats with tight weave will do a better job protecting you from UV rays, say Dr. Heard and Lui. But they may not be the best option to keep kids cool.
If you do want to put your kids in long sleeves, Dr. Heard recommends loose fitting clothing, and ensuring they are wearing sunscreen underneath.
“Strict guidelines would recommend long sleeves and pants, but that is not what is going to happen in hot weather,” she says. So emphasize sunscreen – reapplied every two hours – a wide brimmed hat, and sunglasses at the very least.
Q: Are SPF 60 and 50 essentially the same as SPF 30?
Higher ratings do mean higher protection, says Dr. Lui. “So why not take advantage of it?” he asks. “It’s not like it costs twice as much.”
He says that SPF 30 is the recommended minimum, but advises using SPF 60 simply because people don’t tend to apply enough, so it’s safer to go up a rating.
Lui adds that people often miss areas that are highly prone to skin cancer, like the back of necks and the tops of ears. “If the sun can see the skin, then it needs protection with sunscreen.”
Q: Children’s sunscreen – what should we be looking for, and what should we be looking to avoid?
A: “Kids should wear minimum SPF 30, and the bottle should ideally indicate UVA and UVB protection,” says Dr. Heard.
As for whether we should be buying organic, chemical free, scent free products designed specifically for children, Lui says it’s not necessary.
That’s because sunscreen sold in this country is highly regulated by Health Canada, and is tested and reviewed – meaning that it is all safe enough to use on kids.
“There is no such thing, from a scientific point of view, as child specific sunscreen,’” says Lui. “You can buy one product for the whole family.”
Q: What’s the best way to protect babies from the sun?
A: “Babies should be in the shade with clothing covering their skin, and sunblock on exposed parts if over six months,” says Dr. Heard. “A bad sunburn in a child under one can be life threatening.”
Babies under six months should be kept entirely in the shade in a stroller or under an umbrella. “Remember that sand, snow and concrete reflect up to 85 per cent of UV rays and can burn unprotected skin even if in the shade,” she added.
Q: Are the effects of the sun the same from province to province?
A: “It is best to follow the same guidelines no matter where in Canada,” says Dr. Heard. “In reality, of course, the sun is less intense in the arctic, but for the most populated areas of Canada, which are below the 55th latitude, recommendations are the same. However, UV index is a factor, and people should be more diligent if the UV index is high. Anything over three needs some protection.”
Dr. Lui, who is a parent himself, says he understands the anxiety of Canadian parents trying to make sure their children are safe and healthy when playing outdoors, especially in the summer.
“The more you avoid being in the direct sun, the more you use clothing to protect you, then you don’t have to worry as much,” he says.
As for sunscreens, don’t underestimate their importance.
“Sunscreens are kind of like your seat belt or your air bag,” says Lui. “You obey the laws, drive carefully, and if all else fails, you have that seat belt or your airbag to protect you. Same thing with sun protection. Seek the shade, wear the right clothing, adjust the time when you’re outside, and when all else fails use sunscreen.”
More Facts and Myths
A tan is indicative of health.
MYTH. Having a tan actually means your skin is being injured, says Dr. Lui. A tan is one of the mechanisms your body has to protect itself from the sun, and its way to send a warning that it’s getting too much.
Dark skinned people don’t need to worry about sun damage.
MYTH. “I’ve seen skin cancer in all races, all colours,” says Dr. Lui, adding that while fair skin people may be more susceptible to sun damage, nobody is resistant to the damaging affects of the sun. Anyone can get skin cancer if they don’t protect themselves.
Unprotected sun exposure in childhood can lead to cancer in adulthood.
FACT. Much of the sun you’ll accumulate during your lifetime happens in the first 20 years of your life, in part because of childhood play – which is a good thing, but there’s risk in that. According to Dr. Lui, skin cancers like melanoma and basal cell carcinoma are often linked to sun exposure in youth.
Time spent in the sun can improve your mood.
MYTH. It’s actually light, not UV, that improves mood and seasonal affective disorder, says Lui. So get outside, but try to cover up.
Sunscreen needs to rubbed into the skin to be effective.
MYTH. We think we need to rub sunscreen into our skin in order for it to be absorbed, but Dr. Lui points out that we just want it to sit on the skin to filter UV rays. Apply evenly and generously, but don’t rub it in.
Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure.
FACT. Sunscreen needs about half an hour to bind with the skin, so try to put it on before you leave the house.
Waterproof sunscreen needs to be reapplied after swimming.
FACT. Sunscreen will wear off in the water, even if it’s waterproof. It needs to be reapplied after swimming and heavy sweating.
Clouds, mist and fog block harmful UV.
MYTH. According to Dr. Heard, you can still be exposed to UV rays even on an overcast day, and clouds aren’t a replacement for sunscreen.
Kristen Thompson is a freelance journalist and blogger. You can read her stories in Today’s Parent, the Toronto Star, Metro and the Yummy Mummy Club, or on her blog RunningWithSafetyScissors.com. She lives in Kelowna with her husband and two little girls. Follow Kristen on Twitter at twitter.com/KristenThom or email her at Kristen.firstname.lastname@example.org.