From the difference between UVA and UVB rays to the best suns creams for babies and children, here’s everything you need to know about protecting your little one from the sun.
With our first heatwave of the year set to arrive just in time for the bank holiday weekend, we’re getting ready to soak up the sun. But while reveling in the (rare) English sunshine is on the cards for many of us, we all know too much sun exposure is bad. This is especially the case for babies, children and pregnant women.
We’ve done some digging to find out everything you need to know about protecting your baby and toddler’s skin from the sun. We also round up the best sun creams and sun protection for babies and children, plus where you can buy them.
What are the risks of too much sun exposure?
In addition to the agony of sunburn and the discomfort of enduring the nausea and vomiting of sunstroke, just one episode of severe burning can also significantly increase a child’s risk of developing skin cancer. This is because a child’s skin is much more susceptible to sun damage than an adult’s. It is five times thinner and less capable of producing melanin, the natural sun defence mechanism.
“Children, and particularly infants, have had no ‘weathering’, meaning previous sun exposure, which can otherwise protect adults from sunburn on occasion,” says Dr Sweta Rai of the British Association of Dermatologists. “This means that they generally have more sensitive skin than adults and burn more easily. A baby’s skin can burn in minutes, so keep them out of direct sunlight.”
The effects of sunburn are serious – and can last long after the skin stops glowing red.
“Sunburn at an early age can lead to skin cancer decades later,” says Margret Pinto, founder of Swedish skincare company Evy. “Ideally very young children should not be exposed to the sun at all, but in reality, this is almost impossible. Therefore, a high-quality sunscreen is a must.”
Sunscreens should always block both the UVA and UVB rays that damage skin. But what’s the difference between UVA and UVB rays?
“UVA rays damage our skin on a deeper level and cause ageing and wrinkling over time,” explains Pinto. “UVB damages our skin on a more superficial level and is apparent in the form of reddening and burning. Most importantly, however, both play a key role in the development of skin cancer.”
Sunscreens either absorb the UV light before it can penetrate and damage skin or they create a tangible barrier to physically block UV light. Using sun protection is especially important when you are pregnant.
“It’s best for people to avoid excessive sun exposure – particularly those with lighter skin types,” says Dr Rai. “When you are pregnant though, your immune system is supressed, so you are more likely to have sun-related issues.” Your body is flooded with hormones that make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, and if exposed to damage you could see freckle-like clusters of brown skin on your face, (known as chloasma), or a dark line from your bellybutton to your pelvis.
What’s the best sun protection if you’re pregnant?
Not all sun creams are equal and pregnant women need to be extra careful when choosing a product. Many contain a chemical called oxybenzone which can enter the bloodstream (more quickly than any of the other chemicals in the cream) and potentially affect an unborn baby. Sunscreens that don’t contain oxybenzone include Boots’ Soltan Sensitive Suncare Lotion SPF30 and La Roche-Posay Anthelios SX Daily Moisturizing Cream With Sunscreen. Nevertheless, it is still more harmful to use no sunscreen at all than to use one with oxybenzone in it.
The bottom line, when it comes to sun protection, is to fight a good strategy and
not take risks. Always keep a bottle of sunscreen in your bag, so you can top up during the day. Wear a hat and force your children to wear them too. Avoid being outdoors in a blazing midday sun. Slather your children in a high factor, decent quality sun cream (and buy it new each summer – the effectiveness reduces over time so those half-empty bottles languishing at the back of your bathroom cabinet are actually really dangerous). And repeat. And repeat.
While applying sun cream to a wriggling toddler is no mean feat, there are definitely ways to make it feel less like a messy uphill struggle. Instead of chasing your children with creams and sprays, why not give them some of the responsibility and let them apply sun cream to themselves? Once they see it as fun and grownup the ritual will pass more quickly and you’ll all have more time for Marco Polo in the pool or ice lolly pit stops.
The best sun creams for babies and toddlers
There’s a lot to think about when choosing sun cream for little ones – protection, obviously, but also other factors like ease of application, fragrance, price and how it makes the skin feel when it’s on. Here are some of our favourites.
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