Care for the skin your child is in

The facts (and myths) about summer skin protection


Deborah Neimann-Boehle


Although more parents today insist their children use sunscreen while outdoors, some still think it is OK to have a healthy tan or that a sunburn won’t hurt their children after the red skin disappears. As the summer days get hotter and more kids head to the pool, it’s a good idea for parents to review a few facts and myths about summer skin care.

If your child has a healthy tan, she is less likely to burn.

Myth. There is no such thing as a healthy tan, says Dr. Anne Laumann, associate professor of dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

A person shouldn’t be in the sun long enough to get a tan, Laumann says. If you’ve been in the sun long enough to get a tan, your skin is reacting; some cells may react normally and some may react abnormally.

Putting on sunscreen first thing in the morning will protect your child’s skin all day.

Myth. According to the American Cancer Society this is a common myth. But putting on sunscreen once a day is rarely enough. Sunscreen should be reapplied regularly to work properly. Sunscreen with a sun protection factor, or SPF, of at least 15 should be applied 20 to 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or after your child sweats, gets wet or towels off after swimming. Waterproof sunscreen lasts about 80 minutes during swimming, but water-resistant sunscreen may last only 40 minutes in the water.

A good sunscreen is all you need.

Myth. Children’s lips also need to be protected with a lip balm that has an SPF of at least 15. Don’t forget to check the expiration date; sunscreens don’t work well when they’re old.

And, the American Cancer Society notes, during the most intense sunny period—from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—even a good sunscreen could use help from a shady tree. If you have the choice, keep the kids in the shade, even when they are slathered in sunscreen.

Don’t use sunscreen on babies less than 6 months old.

Fact. Instead, protect them with clothing, hats, umbrellas and other types of shade. If adequate clothing is not available, the American Academy of Pediatrics says a small amount of sunscreen can be applied to the face or the back of the hands.

Combination bug repellent and sunscreen is convenient and protects your child from bugs and sunburn.

Myth. Although it is convenient to have an all-in-one product, sunscreen and bug repellent need to be reapplied at different intervals, Laumann says, so it’s safer to use separate products and follow the individual product directions.

Emily Jennings of Elburn faces this issue almost daily during the summer with her four active children. Her mother died of skin cancer at age 58, and she has a daughter who is allergic to mosquito bites. After researching both problems, she religiously slathers her children with sunscreen as recommended. She uses a separate bug repellent to keep mosquitoes at bay.

Darker sunglasses protect your child’s eyes better than lighter ones.

Myth. The American Cancer Society says the darkness of sunglasses does not equal the amount of protection offered. The society warns parents not to buy toy sunglasses for children. Instead, read the labels and be sure they say the glasses block both types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB.

Clothing adequately protects children from the sun.

Myth and fact. If you can see through the clothing, the sun can also get through, so sunscreen should be applied to any skin that is not covered by opaque clothing. Laumann also warns parents about those trips to Great America. If you are wearing a T-shirt and it gets wet, the sun goes right through the T-shirt.

Leslie Mann, St. Charles mother of three, says her teenagers hate sunscreen on their faces, so she gives them the option of wearing a wide-brimmed hat when they are not swimming.

Laumann says wide-brimmed hats are very popular in Australia, where they are even an optional part of the Boy Scout uniform. Unfortunately, most children in the United States prefer baseball caps, which don’t protect their necks and ears.

Children with fair skin will burn more quickly than kids with darker skin.

Fact. A fair-skinned child will burn more quickly than one of African descent, Laumann says. According to the American Cancer Society, children with fair skin can begin to burn after 15 minutes of exposure to bright sunlight.

Sunburns during childhood can lead to skin cancer later in life.

Fact. Kathleen Krispin of St. Charles was diagnosed recently with basal cell carcinoma on her legs. The diagnosis surprised her until her dermatologist told her skin cancer could result from sunburn in childhood. Then she remembered a few nasty burns she had as a teenager.

“I now have two teenage sons,” Krispin says. “I diligently slathered them with sunscreen when they were little. But when the teenage years hit, and they resisted, I became less strict. Now that I have had skin cancer, I’ve returned to insisting that they use it whenever they are out in the sun. As my dermatologist told me, whenever you tan you’re damaging your skin.” 

Deborah Niemann-Boehle lives and writes on her small organic farm near Cornell, Ill. She shares her life with many animals, three children and her husband, Mike, who is a survivor of skin cancer.


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