Does 80% of sun damage really occur before age 18? There’s been some debate around the truth underlying this fact, but an important point still remains. Getting sunburned when you’re young increases your risk of cancer.

Why? Well is all cumulative, so the earlier you start, the more damage you accumulate. The younger the child the more important it is to protect them. And its particularly important in babies.

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(Image source: Master Fighter, Flickr Creative Commons)

Sun exposure in babies not only increases the risk of skin cancer in the long term, but can be very dangerous. In adults sunburn is painful, but in babies, it can be a medical emergency.

Babies have a much higher ratio of surface area to volume, which means they can lose a lot more water. They are at risk of dehydration, fever, infections, and heatstroke.

Their skin contains less melanin, meaning they are much more at risk of sunburn.

So what is the best protection? Well, there’s some controversy around using sunscreen on babies skin, so the best option is shade and UV protective clothing.

UV Clothing
Dressing babies in sun-protective clothing is the best way to protect them. Clothing must cover arms, legs and hats must cover the back of the neck and have a large brim. Some clothes still let UV through, particularly swimming togs. Good UV protective swimming costumes can be found online.

Shade and Shelter
First, babies should be kept out of direct sunlight.  It’s best to seek shade between 10am and 4pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest. Take care with awnings and umbrellas as they often let a lot of light through. The best is dark dense shade, plus suncream for the moments when your baby is in the sun.

In the car
UVA rays penetrates car windows so its important, particularly on long journeys to make sure your baby is protected. Sit them in the centre at the back to reduce exposure, and apply a UV film to the car windows. Good window film should block out 100% of both UVA and UVB rays. Make sure they have enough water too, as babies can get dehydrated very quickly in a hot car.

Sunscreen

Theres a lot of debate around using sunscreen on babies. Babies have a four times higher surface area-to-volume ratio than adults. This means amount of chemicals that can be absorbed through their skin in proportion to their body weight is much higher.

Infant’s skin is also thinner, and had a thinner outer protective layer (stratum corneum). This means chemicals can penetrate deeper and leaves babies at a higher risk of skin reactions.

Finally, they also lack an outer film called the ‘acid mantle.’ This layer protects the skin from bacteria, viruses, and reduces water loss. Lack of the acid mantle is suggested to put babies at risk from the chemicals in sunscreens.

Added to these vulnerabilities, babies are also likely to lick their fingers and ingest sunscreen.

So whats the best thing to do? Well the most important thing is still protecting your baby from the sun. The FDA and Skin Cancer Foundation recommend using sunscreen from 6 months, and keeping babies out of the sun entirely until then. But if keeping your baby in the shade is not possible, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests applying a small amount of suncream.

Its also a good idea to test it first to make sure your baby’s skin can tolerate the product. Avoiding nanoparticle sunscreens is a good idea, as their safety has yet to be confirmed.

There are lots of options for protecting your baby. Skin cancer rates are rising, there were 14 million skin cancer cases worldwide in 2012 and this is expected to increase to 24 million by 2035.  The earlier we start protecting from the sun, and checking our skin and moles regularly, the better.