Seattle's Child

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sun safety

Great job with the sunglasses and protective clothing. It would be even better if these two were wearing hats. (Stock image)

Ask the Pediatrician: Keeping kids safe in the summer sun

Develop a "sun safety habit," with your kids' help, and remember hydration, too!

Summer is definitely here and we have already had some seriously hot days. When it is blazing, stay inside and stay cool. On more typical summer days, nothing is better than being outside, enjoying all that the beautiful Pacific Northwest has to offer.

Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves how to stay safe in the sun. Helping kids learn “sun safety” habits (sunscreen, protective clothing, and water bottles) will keep them healthy this summer and beyond. Once those are in place, the world is your Hama Hama oyster!

As always, thank you for the great questions. Let’s keep navigating the health of our families and communities together.

Sun safety: sunscreen

Sunscreen can be confusing because there are so many choices. Here are a few tips for reading sunscreen labels.

First of all, look for “broad-spectrum” sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Broad-spectrum means that UVB and UVA rays are screened out, giving you more protection. While sunscreen with SPF over 50 is available, it is not clear that it offers any significant benefit.

Sunscreen that contains zinc or titanium oxide is an option for sensitive areas of the body, such as the nose, cheeks, tops of the ears, and shoulders. Don’t forget that zinc and titanium oxide may stay visible on the skin even after you rub them in. Embrace that cool lifeguard look and don’t forget you can find it in fun colors as well as classic white. There are also micronized types of zinc and titanium, which tend to rub in better and aren’t quite as noticeable as traditional mineral sunscreens.

If you are planning to be in the water, read the label carefully. Water-resistant does not mean waterproof so you may need adjust what you use depending on you outside activities.

Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. This allows it to absorb and provide better protection. Ideally you want to use sunscreen every day because even on cloudy days 80% of the sun’s UV rays can get through. Remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours. If you are swimming, splashing, sweating or drying off with a towel you may need to reapply more frequently.

Sun safety: protective clothing

Long sleeves, hats, and sunglasses protect you in the sun. Let’s talk about long-sleeved clothing first: The tighter the fabric weave, the better it will protect from the sun. The best way to tell if clothing is protective is to hold it up to the light. If the sun is blocked out, you can feel pretty certain that this will provide good protection. There are also special fabrics designed to protect from the sun and the label will say, “UV Protection.”

Hats and glasses are also a must. For the best protection, aim for a hat with an all-around 3-inch brim to shield the face, ears, and back of the neck. Make sure that sunglasses are at least 99% UV protection.

sun safetySun safety: Water, water, water

When kids are outside or playing hard, especially on hot days, it is important to prevent dehydration by replenishing lost fluids. Dehydration occurs when you use or lose more fluid than you take in. This can lead to feeling thirsty, dry mouth, dark urine, headache and in severe cases rapid heartbeat, fast breathing, dizziness, and confusion. Babies and young children show signs of dehydration by having a dry mouth and tongue, no tears while crying, dry diapers for 3-4 hours, sunken eyes, sleepiness, and extreme fatigue.

Prevention is key, and that means drinking fluids throughout the day. Make sure that everyone has a water bottle and is drinking frequently.

Here is something sure to delight children of all ages: Ask them what color their urine is. Seriously. The best way to be sure kids are getting enough fluids is by making sure that their urine is medium to light yellow. If your child is in the diaper phase it is easy to monitor. Older children, well, you just need to ask. Remind them they need to be voiding frequently and if their urine is dark, they need to drink more.

If you are concerned that your child is severely dehydrated it is important they be seen by their provider right away.

Build a “sun safety habit”

A “sun safety habit” means remembering sunscreen, protective clothing, and water bottles when you go out. It is oh so much easier if kids are part of the process and even help you remember what you need. Talk to your children about why it is important to protect your skin from the sun (it prevents painful sunburns, cancer, and premature aging — although they will most likely not care about this). Chances are that this habit will stick and at some point they will thank you when they have fantastic skin as adults.

What about babies?

Babies under 6 months old should remain in the shade and use protective clothing. If there is no shade, then you can use sunscreen on exposed areas while you are seeking shade. It is easy for babies to become sunburnt or dehydrated from too much sun exposure. In addition to good sun protection, make sure that they have lots of opportunity to nurse or bottle feed so they remain hydrated.

Babies over 6 months can use sunscreen but you still need to be sure they can get to shade and are drinking enough. Apply sunscreen to all areas of the body including the face. Be careful around the eyes. If the sunscreen irritates their skin, try a different brand or sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Babies and toddlers can easily become overheated. Make sure that there are plenty of opportunities to drink and get out of the sun to a cool place on hot days.

Build your “sun safety” habit and ask your kids to help you remember all of the safety things you need for a fun day in the sun! Get out there and enjoy.

If you have a health question for Dr. Block, email jhanson@seattleschild.com, and we’ll pass it along.

More from Dr. Block and Kaiser Permanente in Seattle’s Child:

Summer 2021: What’s safe (and not safe) with COVID still around?

Help! My kid has suddenly developed body odor

About the Author

Susanna Block

Dr. Susanna Block, MD, MPH, is a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Seattle and lives with her family in Queen Anne.