Although sun exposure is essential, in particular to help with vitamin D production, when it is excessive health risks are involved, such as sunburn, premature skin ageing, skin cancer (such as melanoma) and eye problems (changes in the retina or cataracts).
The risk of developing skin cancer is related to the amount of ultraviolet radiation (UV) that an individual is exposed to during a lifetime, but especially during childhood – it is estimated that 75% to 80% of sun exposure occurs up to the age of 18.
When the sun rays pass through the atmosphere, they are filtered mainly by the ozone layer. UV rays are one of the components of this solar radiation. As the ozone layer is decreasing, the harmful effects of UV rays have increased exponentially.
Children’s skin is more delicate and sensitive than that of adults. Even a short period of time in the sun at midday could result in serious sunburn.
Children that are most at risk are Caucasians with blue, green or grey eyes, blond hair and light brown or red hair. These children run a greater risk as they sunburn easily. African children or dark-skinned children have a much lower incidence of skin cancer.
1. Avoid sun exposure from 11am to 5pm. During this period the sun strikes vertically on the Earth and the UVA and UVB solar rays penetrate the ozone layer easily.
2. Stay in the shade, especially with children younger than one year old.
3. Use protective clothing and cover up the arms, body and legs.
4. Use a hat with flaps that protects the face, nose, ears and the back of the neck.
5. Use sunglasses with an adequate protection against UV solar rays (this does not depend on the colour or shade of the lenses, but on the chemical product which was added to the lens in order to absorb the UV rays).
6. Use sunscreen on the exposed regions of the body.
7. Use protection not only on the beach or swimming pool but during all outdoor activities (sports or games).
8. Remember that snow, sand and water also reflect UV radiation, which subsequently will lead to double the exposure to these rays.
Types of sun protection lotion
There are various types of protective sun lotion. Some act as a micro-mirror and prevent almost all UVA and UVB rays from reaching the skin, and there are others that absorb radiation. Choose one with UVA and UVB protection.
Use a zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based sunscreen, with a 50+ sun protection factor designed specifically for children.
Apply sunscreen approximately 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply regularly, depending on the number of times the child goes in the water (sweating also has an influence).
Special care should be taken with children that have spots or blemishes, and a higher factor protective cream should be used.
To avoid dehydration during sun exposure, drink plenty of water.
Parents and child-minders should set the example: a child’s exposure to the sun depends on the attitude and habits of its carers.
By Dr Luís Gonçalves
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Dr Luís Gonçalves is a specialist paediatrician, responsible for the Paediatric Unit at the Hospital Particular do Algarve in Gambelas.