Sun Exposure: How Much of It Is Safe For My Child?

You can never be too careful when it comes to regulating your child’s exposure to the sun.  But how do you know how much sun exposure is too much? What are the health risks attached to overexposure? And what are the necessary precautionary measures you must take to protect your child? These are just a few of the questions we’re going to answer in this guide.
At a Glance
  • Unhealthy sun exposure may cause burning, skin darkening, eye damage, and more serious health problems like skin cancer.
  • The UV Index (UVI) is a scale devised to tell you how strong solar UV radiation can get in the course of a day. The higher the UVI level, the greater the strength of the solar radiation and the quicker your child may get sunburned.
  • People have varying levels of sensitivity when exposed to sunlight and its harmful UV radiation. This is because humans are born with different skin types, and some (dark-skinned individuals) have more melanin in their skin cells than others (light-skinned individuals).
  • SPF or sun protection factor measures the amount of protection a sunscreen has against UVB rays, which are known to cause sunburn and skin damage. It provides an estimate of the length of time your child’s skin stays protected from the sun.
  • Among the best ways to protect your child from the harmful effects of sunlight include (1) applying a generous amount of sunscreen (SPF30 or higher) on your child’s skin 20 minutes before going outside, and (2) having your child wear protective clothing with UPF of at least 40.

Maximum Sun Time Calculator

Why is sun protection important for my child?

Sun protection calculator
How much sun is good for my child?

The sun is the source of all life, but it also emits harmful ultraviolet rays that put people’s health at risk. These dangerous rays are the main cause of skin cancer, sunburn, eye damage, and early aging. Granted, getting sunburned once in a while is an unavoidable occurrence in anyone’s life. However, as a parent, it is your responsibility to provide your child with maximum protection from the burning sun. Otherwise, too much UV exposure, at such an early age, could increase your kid’s risk of developing skin cancer. In fact, most non-melanoma skin cancers are caused by unprotected sun exposure during childhood and adolescence.

How does sun damage occur?

Indeed, moderate sun exposure is essential for your child to get his much-needed Vitamin D. However, spending as little as 15 minutes in the sun can already do irreparable damage to his skin.

It’s not temperature and heat that causes sun damage – it is UV radiation. When the sun radiates its light to the earth, it also radiates UV rays. Even when it is cloudy and the sun isn’t visible to the naked eye, these UV rays are present and capable of doing damage to your child’s skin. When these rays reach him, they penetrate the outer layer of skin and pass through the deeper layers, where they can eventually damage or kill skin cells. The radiation dries out your kid’s skin and deprives it of its natural lubricating oils. Consequently, this results in burning, skin darkening, eye damage, and other skin problems. And over time, longer and more frequent sun exposure may potentially result in the development of skin cancer.

What is sunburn?

A sunburn is your body’s way of responding to extreme UV exposure. It’s basically a radiation burn and a clear indication of skin damage. For some people, it may appear as a redness of the damaged skin area, but for others, their skin tends to get darker or slightly change in color thanks to the protective response of melanin, the dark pigment found in human skin cells.  Other symptoms include pain, skin peeling, itching, and blisters.

All types of sunburn, whether mild or severe, cause permanent skin damage even if the skin is showing signs of healing. This is because the UV radiation has already penetrated the deeper layers of your skin, damaging and altering your DNA permanently. This damage may eventually cause premature skin aging or, even worse, skin cancer.

Survey results sun protection of children in spring

What is the UV Index and how does it work?

Your child’s risk of getting sunburned is dependent on two considerations: the strength of the UV rays he is exposed to and the sensitivity of his skin. The UV Index (UVI) tells you how strong solar UV radiation can get in the course of a day. The local UV levels vary throughout the day due to several factors (e.g., latitude, elevation, ozone levels, weather conditions, etc.). The levels start from 0 (low risk) to 11+ (extremely high risk) — higher index value means there is a greater risk for skin and eye damage. And as the number increases, the sooner sun damage is likely to occur.

As a parent, you should learn how to read the UV Index Scale to help you and your child avoid harmful exposure to UV radiation. Referring to the UV Index can help you make informed decisions about the length of time you should let your child stay in the sun, and how you can protect him from solar radiation.

UV Index Chart

The chart below enumerates the different levels of the UV Index, including the strength of the UV radiation at each level and the protective measures that you must take to keep your child safe.

UV IndexRatingProtection MeasuresRecommendation
0 - 2LowNo protection required- Apply sunscreen.
- Wear sunglasses.
3 - 5ModerateProtection recommended- Apply sunscreen.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Put on a hat.
6 - 7HighProtection required- Apply sunscreen.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Put on a hat.
- Seek shade.
8 - 10Very HighProtection and extra precautions required- Apply sunscreen.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Put on a hat.
- Seek shade.
11+ExtremeProtection and all precautions is absolutely needed- Apply sunscreen.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Put on a hat.
- Seek shade.
- Stay indoors from 10 am to 4 pm.
[Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency]
Remember: The higher the UVI level, the greater the strength of the solar radiation and the quicker your child’s skin will burn.

Follow the Shadow Rule. It’s hard to tell when sunlight is at its strongest in a particular area due to different time zones and because of daylight savings time. The easiest way to know how much UV exposure you’re getting is by watching your shadow. If it’s shorter than you, then you need to seek shade, because you are being exposed to high levels of UV radiation.

UV Index Locator

With this little tool below, you can easily check the UV Index in your area.

Skin Types and Levels of Natural Sun Protection

As previously mentioned, people have varying levels of sensitivity when exposed to sunlight and its harmful UV radiation. This is because humans are born with different skin types, and some (dark-skinned individuals) have more melanin in their skin cells than others (light-skinned individuals). This pigmentation is the human body’s natural protective mechanism against solar radiation. And because of it, people can expose themselves to harmful UV radiation for a limited time only, without additional protective measures. To put it simply, the more pigmented your child’s skin-coloring is, the longer he can stay under the sun without applying sunscreen or wearing protective clothing like children’s jackets.

Therefore, in order to avoid overexposure to the sun, you must be able to identify what your child’s skin type is. Below is a chart of skin type and it includes the self-protection time of each one.

 Skin Type 1Skin Type 2Skin Type 3Skin Type 4Skin Type 5Skin Type 6
Skinpale white; ivorywhite; faircream whitemoderate browndark browndeeply pigmented dark brown to darkest brown
Hairlight blond; redblondedark brown to light browndark browndark brown to blackblack
Eyeslight blue; light gray; light greenblue; gray; green;hazel; light browndark browndark brown to blackbrownish black
Tanning/ Browningnever tansbarely tanstans uniformlyalways tans well to moderate browntans very easily to dark brownalways deeply pigmented (dark brown to darkest brown)
Sunburnalways burnsusually burnssometimes burns mildlybarely burnsalmost never burnsnever burns
Frecklesalways frecklesusually frecklesmight freckledoesn't really frecklerarely frecklesnever freckles
Self-Protection Time of the Skin (at a UV Index of 8)3 to 5 minutes20 to 25 minutes28 to 35 minutes36 to 40 minutes60+ minutes80+ minutes

What does Sun Protection Factor (SPF) mean?

Children have a very active lifestyle. They tend to spend a lot of their time on their chosen outdoor hobbies or engaging in kids sports with their friends under the scorching heat of the sun. Instead of encouraging your child to stay indoors, you may want to find ways to provide extra protection for your child while reducing the health risk that comes with sun exposure. You may choose to apply sunscreen on your child’s skin or have him wear sun protective clothing. However, you must identify their SPF levels to improve your child’s protection against sunburn.

SPF measures the amount of protection a sunscreen has against UVB rays, which are known to cause sunburn and skin damage. It measures the length of time your child’s skin is provided protection from the sun.
SPF’s are categorized into four levels as seen on the table below:

Low4, 6, 8, 10
Medium/Moderate15, 20, 25
High30, 40, 50
Very High50+

Which sunscreen should I use for my child?

With so many options to choose from, it is easy to feel dumbfounded when selecting which product is best for your child. Here are four (4) things you need to keep in mind when choosing the right sunscreen:

  1. Stay clear of SPF products over 50. SPF30 to SPF40 is generally acceptable depending on factors like weather or UV intensity.
  2. Check if the product contains zinc oxide (preferably 15% to 20%) for natural-based sunscreens or 3% avobenzone for chemical-based ones. These chemicals are effective in filtering UV radiation.
  3. Avoid products containing retinyl palmitate.
  4. While convenient, spray products are not a practical choice for your kid. It is more difficult to apply an even coating of protection to your child’s skin by spraying sunscreen. Using lotion-based, water-resistant sunscreens is easier and can do the job better.

Sun Exposure and Protection by Child Age

The younger your child, the more sensitive he is to the radiation emitted by the sun and it is best to limit his exposure as much as possible. However, at this stage in his life, it is just as crucial that his Vitamin D needs are met. Therefore, as a parent, you need to strike a good balance between exposure and protection from the sun. As a guide, below is a table containing recommendations on how to manage a child’s sun exposure and protection needs by age:

0-6 months• Their skin is too sensitive for sunscreen and they have very little melanin; therefore, they are more prone to sun damage. Take them for walks early in the morning before 10 am or late in the afternoon after 4 pm.
• Invest in removable mesh window shields for your car windows and UV films for your house windows as they can screen UV radiation.
• Use a stroller with a cover to protect your baby against the sun.
6-12 months• Since your child is a little older, it is now safe to use sunscreen. Use SPF15 or higher.
• Apply sunscreen everywhere on your child’s skin, especially on the hands, neck and ears.
• Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every after 2 hours.
• Avoid the midday sun.
Toddler and up • Use sunscreen that are SPF15 or higher and water-resistant.
• Avoid the midday sun.
• Make sure they are appropriately covered.
Pro Tip: Consider investing in some UV-measuring wristbands. They can let you and your child know when it’s time to reapply some sunscreen. More importantly, they keep track of the intensity of UV radiation, so their alert time automatically adjusts according to the changes in solar radiation levels throughout the day.

Tips on how to protect your child from sun exposure

Now that you know how damaging the sun really is for your child, you can protect them by doing the following:

  • Don’t let him spend too much time in the sun. The worst hours for sun exposure are between 10 am and 4 pm. If he really needs to be outside, it’s better for him to stay in the shade.
  • Always put sunscreen on your child. Always. Even during winter. Don’t just apply them in areas you think are most exposed. The ears, neck, hands, feet and even the lips are often neglected. However, it doesn’t mean the sun can’t reach them. Apply a generous amount of SPF30 (or higher) on your child’s skin 20 minutes before going outside.
  • Have your child take breaks from the sun. Have him stay indoors or in the shade from time to time. Make sure that even his outdoor play areas have plenty of shade for him to take refuge in.
  • Make him drink water. Staying hydrated is key when doing physical activities under the heat of the sun.
  • Cover him up as much as you can. If you can see exposed skin, then the sun’s UV rays can reach it. Therefore, it’s important to dress your child in cool, loose clothing that covers his skin as much as possible. Just like sunscreens, protective clothes have a rating system too, which is known as ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). It is recommended that you purchase kids clothes for your kids with a UPF of at least 40. Making him wear a hat and sunglasses is also advisable. Also do not forget appropriate kids shoes or baby shoes.
  • Educate your child. As early as now, you need to take the time to teach your kid the importance of protecting himself from the sun.

How do you treat sunburn?

  1. Give your child a cool bath. Or, gently apply a cold damp towel to his skin to ease the pain.
  2. Apply gels or lotions containing aloe vera to all the burnt areas.
  3. To help manage the pain and itching, you may give your child some acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  4. Rehydrate the skin by applying generous amounts of moisturizer to all affected areas. This will also help alleviate the itching.
  5. For kids over 2 years old suffering from a more serious sunburn, you may apply a thin coating of 1% hydrocortisone cream for pain relief.
  6. Don’t let your child out in the sun during recovery. It will only make the sunburn worse.
  7. If the sunburn gets worse and you start to notice blisters, call your doctor immediately.

Children suffering from sunburn usually experience redness, pain, and heat sensation. These symptoms may get even worse as time passes. Their skin may tighten or feel itchy because the sun has dried it out. Then, after about a week, the burnt skin begins to peel. To avoid infection, make sure your child does not scratch or peel his skin.

Common Myths and Misconceptions about Sun Exposure

  • The higher the SPF, the better the protection. This is an incorrect assumption. A higher SPF count only extends the duration of your child’s sun protection. It does not increase the amount of protection.
  • Sunscreen is not always necessary. This is false. UV rays are always harmful to the skin even if only a tiny area of skin is exposed. Even on cloudy days, UV rays are still everywhere, so your child needs to always apply sunscreen before going outside.
  • Sunscreen is bad for your health. This misconception is based on an older study. However, a much more recent study shows that the oxybenzone in sunscreens has produced no ill effects when exposed to humans.
  • People with dark skin don’t need sunscreen. UV radiation is harmful to everyone regardless of their skin color. It’s true that people with dark skin have more protection due to higher levels of melanin in their skin. However, that does not mean they are completely immune to skin damage.
  • You can’t tan while wearing sunscreen. Although sunscreen helps protect your skin from UV rays, it does not protect it completely. It is still possible to tan even if you do apply sunscreen multiple times a day.
  • Sunscreen does not expire. Active ingredients in sunscreen do expire over time.

Parents need to exercise extreme vigilance to ensure that their child is always safe from the harmful effects of sun exposure. And with this guide, perhaps you’ll be better equipped to deal with the dangers of solar radiation and provide your child with a healthier future.

Sun Exposure: How Much of It Is Safe For My Child?
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