Mary Lou, it's good that you're thinking about protecting your baby from the dangers of the sun. The sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays are harmful, and babies are most susceptible because their skin is thinnest. Sun exposure for babies, even for a brief time, can cause sunburn, pain, blistering, and dehydration. Over time, sun exposure can cause skin cancer, and two or more blistering sunburns in childhood significantly increase the risk.
You're right that there has been a controversy about the safety of sunscreen for infants. Since babies under 6 months of age have thinner skin, they may absorb more of the sunscreen, and the long-term effects of sunscreen were unknown. The old recommendation was only to use sunscreen on babies over 6 months of age; but to keep babies under 6 months out of direct sun and covered by protective clothing, and not to use sunscreen. However, in the past two years, the American Academy of Dermatology and the American Academy of Pediatrics have stated that since no evidence of harm was found from small amounts of sunscreen on babies' skin, it is considered safe to use sunscreen on infants younger than 6 months of age when they can't be completely protected by shade and clothing.
Here are the basic recommendations to protect your baby from the dangers of sun exposure:
- Try to avoid outdoor play at mid-day (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) when the sun's rays are strongest.
- Play in the shade as much as possible. This is especially important for babies under 6 months of age—keep them under the shade of a porch, tree, umbrella, or stroller.
- Dress your child in light-colored, loose-fitting clothes that cover as much skin as possible. Cotton fabrics are good, and tightly-woven fabric is best—when you hold it up to the light, little shines through.
- Have your child wear a hat with a brim that shades the face, and preferably flaps that shade the neck. Sunglasses with UV protection can help protect your child's eyes.
- Use sunscreen. Sunscreen is recommended for all children over 6 months of age, and for babies under 6 months of age when their skin cannot be entirely protected by shade and clothing. It is considered safe to apply small amounts of sunscreen to small areas of skin such as the baby's face, ears, neck, and hands.
Here are some sunscreen tips:
Choose a sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays, and has an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 15 or higher—these will filter out over 90% of the harmful rays. Choose a water-resistant or waterproof sunscreen if your child is playing in the water. A stick sunscreen with paraffin can be good for your child's face since it doesn't drip into her eyes and cause stinging.
Test the sunscreen on your child's back first to make sure he doesn't develop a skin rash.
Apply the sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going outdoors. Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin, especially the face, ears, neck, shoulders, and arms. Be careful around your child's eyes—and don't put sunscreen on his eyelids—because it can burn if it gets into the eyes. If he gets sunscreen in his eyes, use a damp cloth to wipe his eyes and hands.
Remember to reapply sunscreen after swimming and every two hours.
For more information, read the article on this website "Sun Safety for Children" or visit www.aad.org (American Academy of Dermatology) or www.aap.org (American Academy of Pediatrics).
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.