Ask the Expert: How can I help keep my children sun-safe when they’re involved in sports?

By Michele Green, MD

Dr. Green is a dermatologist specializing in skin cancer and cosmetic dermatology in New York City. Dr. Green graduated with honors from Yale University and received her medical degree from the Mount Sinai Medical center in New York City, where she was Chief Resident during her tenure. She has published numerous papers on surgical reconstruction and the treatment of melanoma.


Q: How can I help keep my children sun-safe when they’re involved in sports and activities that keep them outdoors for extended periods of time, especially when I’m not around to supervise them?

A: It's important to protect your children from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation all year round, but when children are spending more time outdoors and receiving a greater amount of UV exposure than usual, the consequences of neglecting sun protection can be especially serious. However, teaching your children a few sun safety basics will enable them to protect themselves when you’re not around. What are these basics?

First of all, the sun is strongest from 10 AM to 4 PM, so it is best to concentrate most outdoor activities before and after these hours. Next, teach them about shade. Encourage your children to seek shade whenever possible under a densely leafed tree, a sun umbrella, a building, or a canopy — any shaded area can offer some protection.

A physical block, like sun-protective clothing, is also a must. Clothing is, in fact, considered the best single form of sun protection by many experts. The more skin covered, the better, so look for lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Specially made high-UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothes are one option. An item’s UPF indicates what fraction of the sun’s rays can penetrate the fabric; for instance, a shirt with a UPF of 50 would allow just 1/50th of the sun’s UV rays to reach the skin. [The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends clothes with a UPF of 30 or higher.] Comfortable, high-UPF clothes are not hard to find: many sportswear manufacturers now sell everything from kids’ shirts and cargo pants to bathing suits, swim shirts, and cover-ups made of high-tech fabrics designed to keep wearers cool and dry as well as sun-safe.

Also encourage your children to wear a broad-brimmed hat. A hat with a brim of at least 3” all the way around is best, but even a baseball hat is better than no hat! UV-blocking sunglasses will help protect your children’s eyes from UV rays, which can lead to eye diseases (including cataracts and skin cancers of the eye and eyelids) in adulthood. The best sunglasses filter out 99-100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays — the tag should state this. Close-fitting, wraparound sunglasses with side shields provide the most protection. If you’re concerned about your children dropping or losing their sunglasses during activities or while in the pool, look for a pair with an adjustable strap that will keep the sun- glasses securely fastened to the head.

Finally, remind your children to apply sunscreen early and often. I recommend a water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 and broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) protection. [For ex- tended outdoor activity, The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or higher. For the Foundation’s complete Sun Protection Guidelines, visit www.skincancer.org/guidelines.]

Children should apply one ounce of sunscreen to the face and body a full 30 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating heavily. Supply your children with a container of sun- screen to take with them on all outings.

One very important way to help your children protect themselves is to regularly follow these guidelines yourself. If your child sees you practicing sun safety, it’s more likely to become a habit for them.

All these steps should help protect your children (and you) from sunburns and tanning, both of which increase the risk of skin cancer. Skin cancer is largely preventable, and it is never too early to take proper precautions.