sun safety, sunscreen

Sun Safety for Babies and Children

Is there anything as simple or pleasurable as spending time in the sun? Whether it is spring, summer, autumn or winter, we all need time in the sun so that our bodies can receive a healthy dose of mood-boosting and bone-strengthening vitamin D.

There are other benefits too – for example, time in the sun can help us to sleep properly, particularly if the exposure happens in the mornings.

However, too much exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun can be harmful and may result in sunburn, long-term skin damage, eye damage, skin cancer and suppression of the immune system. In the article below, we take a look at how you can get the balance right and keep your child safe from the sun.

How does sunburn happen?

Sunburn is caused by the sun’s three different types of radiation: UVA, UVB and UVC. UVC causes relatively little damage as most is absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere. However, both UVA and UVB survive the atmosphere, with UVB penetrating the top layers of the skin and UVA penetrating even deeper. Once UVB and UVA hit the skin, they disrupt and damage its membranes, proteins and DNA.

Over the 48 hours following excessive sun exposure, cells called keratinocytes which exist at the top layer of skin, respond to the damage by attempting to activate immune cells. This causes fluid from blood cells to leak out and, in turn, causes swelling, reddening, itching and blistering of the skin. The result of all this, of course, is sunburn.

Children with darker skin

Although people with darker skin have more melanin and therefore more inbuilt sun protection, it is essential that both darker-skinned and lighter-skinned children are protected from UV rays as all young skin is susceptible, while, some studies have shown that in certain places dark-skinned people may actually be more likely to develop skin cancer(1).

The early years are critical

Studies have shown that the first 18 years of life are the most critical for preventing cancer-causing sun damage(2).

Tips to keep your child safe in the sun

The skin of babies and children is much more sensitive than that of adults. It is critically important that you limit your child’s sun exposure, as excessive exposure can significantly increase their risk of skin cancer, which may develop as early as when they are in their twenties. So, you should:

  • Keep any child younger than six months out of strong and direct sunlight. Babies have very thin skin and have underdeveloped melanin, which makes them prone to burning.
  • Stick to the shade: you can minimise the potential for excessive sun exposure by keeping your child out of strong sun between 11am and 3pm during the months from March to October.
  • Apply sunscreen to your child: apply half an hour before your child will be exposed to the sun. Ensure the product is at least SPF 30 (ideally SPF 50). It should also be skin-friendly – i.e. hypoallergenic. Typically, the fewer ingredients a sunscreen contains, the friendlier it will be to your little one’s skin.
  • Top up suncream: you should top up suncream at least every two hours, particularly if your little one is in water or simply splashing about in a paddling pool. Sun cream can be washed off by water, while water also reflects UV rays and can increase the level of exposure; furthermore, water can deceive you into thinking that it is cooler than it actually is.
  • Keep the sun hat on: put your child in a Legionnaire’s cap or round sun hat that will protect the face, neck and ears.
  • Stay hydrated: drinking plain water regularly can help guard against sunstroke and dehydration.
  • Do not be totally reliant on sunscreen: sun cream offers protection but it is not a perfect solution. Make sure that your child also spends time in the shade and wears suitable sun-safe clothing.

Sun-safe clothing and sunglasses

If you are taking your child out into strong sun you should ensure they are wearing suitable clothing. For example:

  • A Legionnaire’s cap or wide-brimmed hat that provides complete protection for the face and head.
  • A long-sleeved top as well as cool trousers or a long skirt.
  • Sunglasses that bear the CE Mark and British Standard Mark 12312-1:2013 E

Sun cream for children

Most child-friendly sun creams tend to be SPF 50 and fragrance free – this is to provide the stronger level of sun protection needed as well as being free of the kinds of allergens that might irritate sensitive skin.

Ideally, you should not have to use sun cream on your baby as it is unwise to expose a new baby to any amount of sun. However, if exposure to direct sunlight is unavoidable, you should check that the sun cream you have is safe to use. You can test whether the sun cream is safe for your child’s skin by first applying a small amount to a limited area of skin and checking to make sure there is no adverse reaction – preferably, this test should be carried out 24 hours prior to sun exposure.

When applying sun cream to your child you should ensure that you use enough – unfortunately, most people don’t apply a sufficient amount. This fact means that they could be leaving their children at risk of painful and potentially irreversible skin damage(3).

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that adults apply 35ml of sun cream (seven teaspoons) to their bodies, with children you should apply around 10 to 17.5ml (up to 3.5 teaspoons), depending on the size of your child(4).

Generally speaking, you should use at least SPF 30 sun cream for your child and should ensure that it has broad spectrum (UVA) protection. However, given that most parents use insufficient sun cream, it is best to use a 50 factor product where possible.

Furthermore, you will need to decide between a spray or a lotion. It is important to note that although a spray might seem easier to apply, it is harder to ensure sufficient thickness of coverage. When you use a lotion you can measure it out in your hands, so you see the quantity which has been applied

Children who require extra care

According to the NHS, you should take extra precautions with your child if they meet any of the following criteria:

  • They are younger than six months
  • They have freckles
  • They have red or fair hair
  • They have pale, white or light brown skin
  • They have several moles
  • They burn easily
  • They have a dermatological condition
  • They have not previously experienced much skin exposure
  • They are on medication that affects their response to UV rays
  • They tend to burn rather than tan
  • There is a family history of skin cancer

Coping with sunburn

If you are aware that your child has suffered sunburn, you should take her out of the sun immediately and do the following:

  • Give her a cool bath or shower, or use a wet towel.
  • Ensure that she is well-hydrated with water and/or milk.
  • Apply a child-safe after sun lotion or aloe vera cream.
  • Offer a suitable painkiller such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

However, you should avoid doing any of the following:

  • Putting your child in an ice bath.
  • Giving your child a warm/hot shower or bath.
  • Applying an ice pack.
  • Popping blisters.
  • Using petroleum jelly or petroleum-based products on the skin.
  • Scratching or peeling your child’s skin.
  • Putting your child in tight or uncomfortable clothes.

When to contact your GP or NHS 111

You should seek medical help if:

  • Your child has a high temperature, feels hot or complains of shivers.
  • Your child seems unusually tired or lethargic.
  • Your child is experiencing headaches or muscle cramps.
  • Your child feels dizzy or sick.
  • Your child vomits
  • Your child is under one year old and has sunburn.(5)


Almost all humans can benefit from some exposure to the sun. However, it is essential that you keep your newborn out of direct sunlight and that you regulate your growing child’s sun exposure, especially avoiding hours of strong sunlight. Sun protection is essential as your child spends more times outdoors and this should be achieved through a combination of UV-protecting clothing, sunscreen products, and spending time in the shade.