The past year has been rough for so many people in the Denver metro area (and all over). Like, really rough. But things are opening back up, the sun is shining (maybe a little TOO much – *cough* record-setting heat *cough*) and people of all ages are eager to get out and have some fun in the beautiful Colorado sun.
A common boast is that Colorado has at least 300 days of sunshine annually. Regardless of the accuracy of that claim, those of us who are fortunate enough to live in this beautiful state know that its many days of sunshine, no matter how wonderful, can also present a challenge. We all know how intense that sun can be – especially if you head up to even higher altitudes. Combine those days of sunshine with the nation’s highest average elevation (Denver is the Mile High City, after all!), and Colorado has the United States’ highest per capita rate of skin cancer. Yup, if you explore the beauty of Colorado’s magnificent nature too haphazardly, you just might get burnt (literally).
Research indicates that five or more bad sunburns before the age of 20 can increase one’s risk of melanoma by an astounding 80 percent, so sun protection should be on every parent’s mind throughout the year in Colorado, where sunburns are so common. As your favorite Denver integrative pediatrician, we’d love to offer some tips to everyone in the Mile High City for keeping your kiddo protected from the beautiful – but intense – Colorado sun. After all, sun protection is a part of you and your child’s health care!
Sun Protection Tips
As set forth in our Naturally Healthy Kids handbook (available on Amazon as an eBook), sunburn is caused by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation, both Ultraviolet A (UVA) (the more damaging type which is especially potent in the summer months in Colorado) and Ultraviolet B (UVB).
Children especially need to be protected from the sun’s burning rays because most long-term sun damage occurs in childhood, including at the beach, sporting events or while engaged in outdoor activities (such as hiking, skiing and snowboarding). Sunburn is a serious problem for all children, but especially so for infants who have thin or fair skin – and, as seen above, can lead to major issues down the road as they grow up.
Think of it this way: an investment in protecting your child from the sun now could do them a favor for the rest of their entire lives. We’d say that’s a very worthwhile investment!
The most common physical characteristics that are predictors for severe sunburn are red or blond hair, blue or green eyes, freckles and/or a large number of moles, although sun protection is important for children of all skin colors and tones.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has developed guidelines for sun safety and protection for infants and for kids. These guidelines are set forth below, as supplemented by guidelines published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and some helpful tips and information found in our Naturally Healthy Kids handbook:
For Infants Under Six Months:
- If you’re strolling through City Park or the Cherry Creek Trail, keep infants out of direct and indirect sunlight, except during the earliest and latest hours of daylight (even then, sun exposure should be minimal). Look for shade under a tree, umbrella or stroller canopy – or anywhere you can find it.
- Dress babies in lightweight clothing that covers their arms and legs, and use brimmed hats that shade the neck to prevent sunburn.
- When adequate clothing and shade are not available and there is no way to avoid the sun, apply a minimal amount of sunscreen with at least 15 SPF (sun protection factor). Apply the sunscreen to small areas that are not covered by hats and clothing. Remember to cover all exposed areas of a baby’s skin, including the face, back of the hands, back of the neck, tips of the ears, and tops of the feet. You want to be extra careful with little babies!
- As with infants, the first – and best – line of defense against harmful ultraviolet radiation exposure is covering up and staying in the shade, whenever possible.
- When selecting clothing to protect against sun exposure, look for those made of tightly woven fabrics and of darker colors. Commercially available sun-protective clothing (like swim shirts) are helpful. Some literally have UV protection built into their fabric. Cotton clothing is also both cool and protective.
- Find a wide-brimmed hat that can shade your child’s cheeks, chin, ears and back of the neck, and sunglasses (preferably wrap-around) with UV protection to protect your child’s eyes. Baseball caps (go Rockies, even though they aren’t very good!) do not protect your child’s ears and neck, so be sure to apply sunscreen if your child chooses to wear a cap.
- Apply sunscreen with an SPF 15 or greater to any areas of your child’s skin that aren’t covered by clothing. Children at a higher risk for burning (such as those who are fair-skinned and fair-haired; see above) should receive a sunscreen of SPF 30.
- Rub sunscreen in well, making sure to cover all exposed areas, especially the face, nose, ears, feet and hands, and even the backs of the knees. Apply carefully around the eyes and avoid the eyelids. PRO TIP: It is a good idea, before applying, to test the sunscreen on your child’s back for an allergic reaction. If the sunscreen irritates the skin, try a different brand or sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. If a rash develops, contact us and we can help out. We are always happy to help and provide pediatric care!
- Be sure to apply enough sunscreen, which is about one ounce for an adult-sized person and proportionally less for a child. Apply sunscreen every time your child is going outside.
- To prevent sunburned lips, apply a lip coating that contains PABA (although children under 6 months old should not use PABA products).
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming, sweating or towel drying. Remember that a “waterproof” sunscreen will only stay on your child’s skin about 30 minutes in water.
- Remind your kids, again and again, about the dangers of sunburn and discourage any preoccupation with tanning, including the use of tanning beds.
Additional Sunscreen and Sun Safety Tips:
- The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Plan on limiting sun exposure during those hours.
- The sun’s damaging UV rays can bounce back from sand, water, snow or concrete. Be particularly careful in those settings, including while frolicking in the beautiful Rocky Mountains!
- Don’t let your guard down on those relatively rare cloudy days in Colorado. Up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can get through the clouds so continue to use sun protection.
- Put sunscreen on your child 30 minutes before going outdoors. It is not immediately effective and needs time to work.
- Remember that sunscreens should be used for sun protection and not as a reason to stay in the sun longer than is needed, tempting as that may be!
- If you’re going to a Rockies game, try getting seats in a shaded area. Or try to map out which sections will get sun at which times of day, and make your ticket purchases based on that. For a guide on where to find shaded seats at Coors Field, click here.
Choosing a Sunscreen
When choosing a sunscreen, look for the words “broad-spectrum” on the label, which means that the sunscreen will protect against both UVB and UVA rays. Choose a water-resistant sunscreen and reapply as noted above. Many dermatologists prefer mineral sunscreens made of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which deflect sun rays and are often gentler on kids’ more sensitive skin. If your child’s nose, cheeks, top of the ears, shoulders or any other area has been repeatedly burned, protect them completely with zinc oxide ointment. Avoid using sunscreens with chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone or avobenzone, as they carry a higher risk for irritation. Oxybenzone also may have hormonal properties.
For infants under 6 months of age, do not use a sunscreen containing PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid). A good PABA-free sunscreen suitable for babies is Water BABIES.
It is generally best to purchase a sunscreen lotion, rather than a spray or a stick sunscreen. Sprays may seem easier to apply, but they won’t work effectively unless properly applied–the spray nozzle should be about 2 centimeters (a little less than an inch) from the skin and the liquid should be visible on the skin. When using a stick sunscreen, you need to make four passes on each area of the skin to have any effect. So unless you are consistently willing and able to make the effort to diligently apply a spray or stick sunscreen, it is best to use a sunscreen lotion.
Closing Thoughts on Sunscreen
We recommend that you take the time to do thorough research before purchasing sunscreen for your kids. Doing so is a very worthwhile investment for your children’s health, both now and in the future! A minor inconvenience today could spare your child a major health issue in a few decades (not to mention a painful and obnoxious sunburn in the present). It’s always good to think about the long-term, too!
As always, please contact us with any questions you may have regarding sun protection for your children. It’s a bit of a tricky issue and can be a little harder to navigate in a place like Colorado, so we’re always here to help you out. As a holistic pediatrician, we combine both conventional medicine and complementary and alternative treatments in order to provide your family with an integrative pediatric partner in your child’s health and development – and believe it or not, sun protection is a part of that! We’re also here to answer any other questions you may have on this or any other topic concerning your child’s health and well-being. Nothing’s more important than that! Thank you for trusting us with your precious kiddos! Take care, and stay healthy out there!