Sunburns and Skin Cancer: Why Parents Need to Give Kids More (Sun)screen Time This Summer.

Sunburns and Skin Cancer: Why Parents Need to Give Kids More (Sun)screen Time This Summer.

Share this

Most people know that skin cancer is commonly linked to too much sun exposure, as harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause short and long-term damage to the skin. However, only 32 percent of people recently surveyed in our annual Safe Sun survey were aware that childhood sunburns are more likely to lead to skin cancer as an adult than sunburns in adulthood. The good news is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer, which means parents have the power to protect their kids from the sun now and lower their risk of skin cancer in the future. 

Sunburns in childhood are strongly associated with skin cancer later in life.

Sunburns are never pleasant, but they’re also incredibly dangerous for kids. While too much sun exposure is damaging for all ages, sunburns in childhood significantly increase an individual’s risk of developing melanoma or other skin cancers as an adult. Children generally have a thinner outer layer of skin compared to adults, which makes them more susceptible to the effects of the sun. As a result, kids may get sunburned more easily or severely. In addition, children exposed to excessive amounts of sun at a young age have more time to accumulate skin damage that compounds over time. Every single sunburn can increase the risk of skin cancer as you age, which is why sun-related damage as a child can lead to serious health concerns as an adult.

How to make sunscreen application a part of your daily routine.

While the truth about sunburns can seem scary, there are ways you can safely protect your kids without robbing them of a fun time outside in the warmer months. Sunburns are generally preventable, making sunscreen application one of the best ways to shield your child from the dangers of the sun now and protect their health in the long run.

While summertime is the most well-known season for sunscreen, sunscreen is recommended whenever your child is outside and the UV index is high. That’s why it’s important to be vigilant anytime of year, even in the spring when UV rays may be stronger than they seem. While it may be easy to remember sunscreen at the pool or beach, be sure to apply it before concerts, sporting events, festivals, and any other activity taking place in the direct sun. 

Consider these sunscreen recommendations:

  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sending your kids outside.
  • Be thorough in your sunscreen application, spreading it generously on any areas of the skin that will be exposed to the sun.
  • Reapply every two hours or anytime after your child swims or sweats.
  • Send sunscreen with your child to school or camp to apply before any time they spend outside, even if only for a few minutes.
  • Dress your kids in sun protective clothing and hats (if they’ll tolerate them) to further reduce sun exposure to their skin.

Putting sunscreen on kids, especially squirmy toddlers, may seem like a hassle, but it’s a worthwhile investment in their health. And, the more frequently sunscreen application becomes part of the routine, the easier it will be to get their cooperation.

The best kind of sunscreen is the one they’ll wear.

Every child over six months old should wear sunscreen in the sun, regardless of skin tone. (Babies younger than six months should be kept out of the sun altogether.) What kind of sunscreen you choose is up to you, but generally, I recommend choosing a mineral sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or more, which offers protection without the chemicals found in chemical sunscreen. If you’re going through the effort to put sunscreen on a child, it makes sense to select a sunscreen that offers the most protection. 

Ultimately, you can choose
the kind of sunscreen that you use and your child will tolerate. There are a wide variety of mineral sunscreens available today, from creams and gels to sticks and sprays. I do suggest avoiding spray lotions for young children, as it can be difficult to gauge coverage and kids may end up breathing in the fumes. You may want to look for water or sweat-resistant sunscreens, but you’ll still need to reapply when your kids come out of the water. 

Tips for getting young children on board with sunscreen.

If you have a squirmy kid or a child with sensory sensitivities, it may feel like a challenge to get them to wear sunscreen. But instilling the importance of sunscreen at a young age will help them practice sun safety as they become adults and potentially parents of their own children. Here are a few tips for enlisting their cooperation:

  • Model applying sunscreen on yourself. They’re watching you and want to do what you're doing—at least while they’re little.
  • Make wearing sunscreen part of your family’s daily routine. The more consistently it is expected, the easier it will become for you and them.
  • Get them involved in the application process by letting them help rub it in or put sunscreen on you at the same time.
  • Keep sunscreen application fun by singing a silly song or rhyme.

If you have older children and teenagers, be clear about the dangers of tanning, both to the appearance of their skin as they age as well as the life-threatening risks of skin cancer. If being tan is important to them, encourage them to use a self-tanning lotion instead of tanning beds, and make sure they still use sunscreen.

Prioritize and encourage safe sun habits now to reduce your child’s skin cancer risk in adulthood.

Even a small amount of UV exposure can cause long-term damage to your child’s skin. As a parent, you have the opportunity to educate your child on sun-safe habits that could significantly reduce their skin cancer risk as an adult. Model how to use sunscreen to protect your own skin from the sun and emphasize the importance of protecting theirs as well. By consistently wearing and reapplying sunscreen, you and your children can enjoy a worry-free summer without the pain or dangers associated with blistering sunburns. 

If your child burns more easily, or if they’re on a medication that might impact the effects of the sun on the skin, talk to your pediatrician or a dermatologist. They can help you figure out the best way to keep your kids safe now and into the future.

Want to learn more about sun protection for your child?

Find a MedStar Health primary care provider or dermatologist today.

Primary Care


Stay up to date and subscribe to our blog

Latest blogs