The sunscreen dilemma: should your child be wearing it?
Summer is on the way and the best place for kids to be is away from the iPad or X-box and running free in the great outdoors, but any parent will tell you that the simple instruction to play outside has been complicated by mixed messages about the sun. On one hand, we are informed that children need exposure to sunlight so that their bodies’ stores of essential vitamin D are boosted. On the other, we are warned that too much sun raises the risk of skin cancer.
Confusion has lead to many parents skimping on their child’s sunscreen or failing to apply it altogether. Certainly I fell into this bracket, inconsistently insisting my 10-year-old son went outside wearing SPF. Yet statistics from the Outdoor Kids Sun Safety Code, a newly-formed charitable campaign group backed by over 80 national governing bodies of sport, have changed my mind. They confirm such negligence can have catastrophic consequences and have resulted in me scurrying to slap on cream before every outdoor occasion...
"Melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, can be seeded in childhood and sparked by sunburn,” says Michelle Baker, the campaign’s founder. “Worryingly, it is now the most common cancer in the UK amongst 15 to 34 year olds.” With more than 13,000 people developing the disease every year compared with around 1,800 in 1975, its incidence is rising faster than any other cancer.
Despite the scary statistics, a survey by the Outdoor Kids Sun Safety Code reveals this week that sports coaches and holiday camp organisers claim 40 per cent of children still turn up to sessions without any sun protection whatsoever. So when and how should children apply it? We've tackled a few common queries...
What's the deal with vitamin D?
Concerns about vitamin D, primarily produced in the body by exposure to UVA rays from sunlight, has lead to something of a sunscreen backlash in recent years. While it’s true that vitamin D deficiency and rickets are on the rise among the UK’s children and that the consequences can mean a greater risk of numerous diseases, the risks of dying from skin cancer are also considerable. So what’s the answer? Advice from Cancer Research UK and BAD is to spend a few minutes a day without sunscreen - but no longer. “The time required to make sufficient vitamin D is typically short and less than the amount of time needed for skin to redden and burn,” says Dr Shergill. “Regularly going outside for just a few of minutes in middle of each day should be enough.”
What are the riskiest outdoor activities for children?
Dr Bav Shergill, a spokesperson for the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD), says that it’s not only sunbathers that are putting their skin at risk. “If children play any sort of outdoor activity, they should be protected,” he says. “Playing outside, cycling, football and tennis can all entail several hours beneath the sun’s harshest rays.” Remember too that swimming in the sea or an outdoor pool means that a child’s sunscreen will need to be reapplied every time they emerge from the water. “Risks of sunburn are heightened by the fact that the reflection from the water can double the amount of UV light absorbed by the skin,” Dr Shergill says. “It’s the same with snow which is why SPF is essential when skiing.”
What type of sunscreen do they need?
Don’t get lured into spending a small fortune on sunscreen, as any brand will do. Just make sure it has UVA and UVB protection. Sport and water-resistant versions are good for sporty kids, but still need to be reapplied. Junior sunscreens are cheaper (and suitable for adult use) as you don’t pay VAT. Look for a UVA star-rating symbol indicating the percentage of the UVA rays absorbed by the product in relation to UVB: "The more stars, the better the product", says Dr Shergill. Remember to check the expiry date of sunscreen. Most last two years, so hang onto it for several summers and its protection will diminish.
What’s the optimum SPF?
This can be confusing. A sunscreen's SPF is calculated by comparing the time it takes for a person to turn pink. Most people assume that a factor 30 provides double the protection of a factor 15, but that’s not the case. While an SPF 15 sunscreen filters out 93 per cent of dangerous UVB radiation, an SPF30 only blocks a further 3 per cent. In fact, Cancer Research UK has found that many people burn more frequently when they use higher factors of sunscreen because they mistakenly think they can stay out in the sun for longer. To be on the safe side, experts recommend a product of at least 30+ SPF for children.
When and how should you apply it?
To be at all effective it needs to be generously applied and reapplied regularly (at least every two hours) during the day. Over a quarter of people in the new survey admitted that they didn’t ask children to do so. As a general rule of thumb, children need around 1-2 teaspoons of sunscreen depending on their size. “It should be applied to clean, dry skin and to all exposed body parts,” Dr Shergill says. “Children with fair or red hair, pale skin or freckles are most at risk of burning.”
Is SPF clothing worth the money?
Probably not. “Bear in mind that an SPF 15 fabric provides protection for only around 15 minutes in strong sunlight,” says Dr Shergill. “If you child is going to be outside for longer than that then you need sunscreen as well. However, it is important to cover up children’s shoulders and back in strong sunlight and also to wear a peaked cap and UV-blocking sunglasses on bright days. Darker clothing made with denser fabric offers the best protection."
Try the 2-week challenge
Dr Benjamin Gardner, psychologist and habit formation expert, says that applying sunscreen before they go out becomes habit for young children in just two weeks. “A major obstacle to implementing sun protection can be habits forged in childhood which lead to the lack of well-developed routines," says Dr Gardner. “Yet my own research shows that after just two weeks a simple sun protection routine will become ‘second nature’.”