Before you head outdoors with your baby in tow, take some precautions to protect her tender skin.


Swear Off Sun Damage

Hooray! It's almost summer. With the birth of my first child approaching rapidly, I've been daydreaming about taking the baby on leisurely strolls around the neighborhood. As my due date nears, though, I'm realizing there's so much I don't know about equipping my little one to venture outside. What clothing is appropriate? Is sunscreen a "must" or a "don't" for an infant? What about baby sunglasses -- are they just for looks (they are awfully cute) or something a baby really needs?

The good news: "There are simple steps you can take to keep a child's skin healthy," says Adelaide Hebert, MD, a dermatologist at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

Keep Her Covered

Spending too much time in the sun without the proper protection can wreak havoc on skin. The harm is done by the sun's ultraviolet rays. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB rays, but both are thought to cause skin damage and contribute to skin cancer.

"Exposure to UVA and UVB rays is cumulative, and all children who have had blistering sunburns are at risk of developing malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, later in life," says Anthony J. Mancini, MD, head of dermatology at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago.

Because babies' thin skin burns more easily than older skin, the best defense is to keep children under 6 months out of direct sunlight. So...

  • If you're going to be outside, put a brimmed hat on your baby that shields her face and ears, and use a stroller with a sunshade for walks.
  • Resist the temptation to dress her in cute little shorts or a sundress. Loose-fitting, lightweight long sleeves and long pants are best. This attire can actually be more comfortable for a baby than having sunlight shining on her skin, says Dr. Hebert.
  • It turns out that those tiny sunglasses do serve a purpose. "Protecting the skin encompasses the eyes and eyelids as well," says Dr. Hebert. If your baby can keep sunglasses on, choose a pair that blocks both UVA and UVB rays for complete protection. Start her young to help develop the habit.

Choosing Sunblock

The Right Sunblock

When proper clothing and shade aren't available, you can apply a minimal amount of chemical-free sunscreen to small areas -- such as the face and the back of the hands -- on your young infant, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Chemical-free sunscreen is made with only physical blockers such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which sit opaquely on skin (like finger paint) and are less likely to cause irritation than sunscreens with chemicals.

For children 6 months and older, opt for a "broad-spectrum" product, which blocks both UVA and UVB rays. (These sunscreens usually contain both physical and chemical blockers.) As for SPF, Dr. Mancini recommends 30. "We used to say SPF 15 or 30, but now I tell parents to go with 30 for greater protection," he says. Would 45 or 50 be better? "Beyond 30, there's probably not a significant increase in protection." Other sunscreen musts: Apply it to all exposed areas 30 minutes before heading out. Reapply it after one and a half to two hours have passed and after swimming or toweling off -- even if it's waterproof.

Other Sun Tips

Here are more tips for protecting kids of all ages from harmful rays whether at the beach or in a car (UVA rays can penetrate windows):

  1. Try to avoid outside time between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is strongest.
  2. Outfit kids in brimmed hats and clothing with a tight weave (the less light that penetrates the fabric when held up to the sun, the better). The tightness of the weave matters more than the garment's color -- unless it gets wet. In that case, any color is better than white, because wet, white T-shirts offer almost no sun protection. (Dry T-shirts, any color, offer an SPF of 8. Specially designed sun-protective garments typically offer an SPF of 15 or more.)
  3. Don't forget about sun safety when you take your child to daycare. If kids play outside, supply the caregivers with a hat and sunblock, says Dr. Hebert.

Need Just a Little

Despite its dangers, the sun does play a role in the production of vitamin D, which is important for bone health. Because shunning sun and wearing sunscreen can cut down on vitamin D production, children need to get the vitamin through other sources such as fortified formula or milk, or supplementation.

The AAP recommends vitamin D supplements of 200 IU per day for infants (over-the-counter liquid drops are available, but consult your baby's pediatrician before using) who are exclusively breastfed and for nonbreastfed infants who consume less than 16.9 ounces per day of vitamin D-fortified formula. Weaned children can drink at least 16.9 ounces of D-fortified milk a day or take a daily multivitamin with sufficient amounts of vitamin D.

Kristen Finello, expecting her firstborn this month, lives in Scotch Plains, New Jersey.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2005.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

American Baby