6 Sun Smarts for Babies and Toddlers

Sunshine warms our bodies, improves our mood and even gives us vitamin D—especially beneficial for strong bones and a healthy immune system. But the bright light has a dark side, too.

Too much sun damages our skin and causes premature wrinkling, spotting, and can cause skin cancer, the most serious of which is melanoma. There are two other types of skin cancer: basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, and these can also be caused by sun exposure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. More than 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed each year and melanoma causes more than 75 percent of skin cancer deaths.

Dawn Davis, MD, a board-certified pediatric dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic reports that the incidence of melanoma in childhood is rising. "Pediatric melanoma accounts for 18 percent of all melanoma cases," she says.

Taking steps now to protect their skin from the harmful effects of the sun could save their life later. Here, Dr. Davis' advice:

1. Keep infants under 6 months old out of the sun, period. Infants should be covered up in light clothing. Shield them from the sun by seeking shade and covering them with the hood of the baby carrier. Use a sun hat, too.

2. Sunscreen can be used on babies older than 6 months. The best sunscreens for young children contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. "Both chemicals are natural ingredients and act as sun blockers-reflecting the sun away from the skin-as opposed to sunscreens which cause a chemical reaction that diffuses the light and provide protection from the sun's harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays," explains the expert. "These products have a thick consistency and go on white."

3. Avoid products with oxybenzone. "It's the ingredient that will most likely trigger an allergic reaction in children," says Davis. If your child has an allergic reaction (skin that turns red and irritated at the site of the application), it will occur almost immediately. "Wash off the lotion and take the bottle to your physician or dermatologist who can do the detective work necessary to determine which ingredient(s) caused the sensitivity, but more often than not oxybenzone is the culprit."

4. Dress your kids in protective clothing if they hate sunscreen. Dr. Davis says the protection offered by the sun protective clothing is often higher than popular sunscreen products. Sun protective clothing typically has an SPF of 50 or more and is comfortable to wear. An ordinary cotton T-shirt by comparison has an SPF of 4. "If you don't want to make the investment in clothing they may soon grow out of, there is also a chemical rinse on the market that can be added directly to the laundry," advises the dermatologist. "It stays on the clothing for 4 to 5 washes. The trouble is you have to remember which clothes have been treated and how many times they've been washed."

5. Follow directions on the sunscreen label carefully. "People make two major mistakes when using sunscreen: they don't apply it correctly or neglect to reapply it," says Dr. Davis. "This is especially true of sunscreen sprays. Many parents don't stand close enough when applying and aren't even with the application so it can be tricky to use correctly. Still, it's an effective alternative for kids who don't like the feel of lotion on their skin or are in a big hurry to get to the pool."

6. If you have a family history of skin cancer or if your child has an excessive amount of moles, take him to a dermatologist. Moles can be cancerous and should be carefully monitored for rapid growth or changes. "Any time there is a suspicious spot on the skin-by that I mean a mole or blemish with a strange color or symptoms that can't be explained such as persistent itching, oozing, bleeding, it should be seen by a doctor," says Davis adding that a dermatologist also has the ability to conduct allergy testing. "A painless patch test which is performed on the child's back can be done to quickly determine which sunscreen ingredients are causing sensitivity."

Dawn Davis, MD and board-certified pediatric dermatologist
Mayo Clinic in Cleveland, OH

National Institutes of Health

The American Academy of Dermatology

The Skin Cancer Foundation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention