Protecting a child from sunburn and long-term overexposure to the sun reduces their risk of developing skin cancer later in life. Encourage your child or teenager to be SunSmart and use a combination of sun protection measures – slip on sun protective clothing, slop on SPF30 or higher sunscreen, slap on a broad-brimmed hat, seek shade and slide on sunglasses.
Sun exposure in the first 10 years of life partly determines your lifetime potential for skin cancer, while sun exposure in later life determines how much this potential is realised. Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world.
Two in three Australians will develop some form of skin cancer before 70 years of age. Every additional decade of overexposure to UV further increases the risk of skin cancer, so increased use of sun protection against sun exposure will help prevent skin cancer and melanoma at any age.
Skin cancer and children – a healthy UV balance
A healthy balance of exposure to the sun's UV radiation is important for everyone's health. Too much UV can cause sunburn, skin and eye damage, and skin cancer.
Too little UV can lead to low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D regulates calcium levels in the blood and is essential for healthy bones and muscles, and general health.
We can see sunlight and feel heat (infrared radiation), but we cannot see or feel UV radiation.
UV radiation comes directly from the sun. It can also be scattered in the air and reflected by surfaces such as buildings, concrete, sand, water and snow. UV radiation can also pass through light cloud cover.
Whenever UV levels reach 3 or higher, a combination of sun protection measures (hats, clothing, sunscreen, shade, and if practical, sunglasses) is needed. Don't just wait for hot and sunny days to use sun protection – UV can still be damaging even on cool, cloudy days.
The sun protection times indicate when the UV level is forecast to be 3 or higher. Find the daily sun protection times for your location on the free SunSmart app, online at or at the Bureau of Meteorology. There is also a free SunSmart widget available on the SunSmart website.
Check the sun protection times each day and use a combination of the five sun protection measures during those times.
UV and vitamin D – getting the right amount of sun
The average time most people need to spend in the sun in order to have healthy vitamin D levels varies according to skin type, time of year, location and UV levels.
- When UV levels are 3 or higher for much of the day (generally from September to the end of April in the southern parts of Australia and all year in the north), most people require just a few minutes of sun exposure mid-morning or mid-afternoon for their vitamin D needs and should be extra cautious in the middle of the day when UV levels are most intense.
- When UV levels are usually below 3 (generally from May to August in the southern parts of Australia), most people are encouraged to be outdoors around midday each day, with some skin uncovered. Being physically active outdoors will help the body to make vitamin D.
- People who work outdoors for long periods of time may need sun protection all year round, as they have an increased risk of skin cancer.
Protecting children from UV damage
During the sun protection times, remember to use a combination of five sun protection measures – slip, slop, slap, seek and slide.
Slip on covering clothing
Use cool, loose-fitting clothing to cover as much of your child's skin as you can. If possible, choose fabrics that contain full percentages or blends of heavyweight natural fibres. These include cotton, linen and hemp or lightweight synthetics such as polyester, nylon, Lycra and polypropylene. The tighter the fabric structure, whether knitted or woven, the better the sun protection.
Slop on SPF30 or higher sunscreen
Some tips when using sunscreen with children include:
- Choose a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen.
- Apply sunscreen to your child about 20 minutes before they go outside.
- Apply sunscreen to all parts of your child's body not covered by hats or clothing.
- Even if the label states four hours water resistance, reapply sunscreen every TWO hours.
- Never use sunscreen as the only form of sun protection, as it does not offer complete protection.
- Never use sunscreen to prolong the amount of time you or your child spends out in the sun. You can still get sunburnt if you stay out in the sun for a considerable period of time, even when you are wearing sunscreen.
- Store sunscreen under 30ºC and only use sunscreen within the expiry date.
When considering sunscreen for babies, remember:
- A baby's skin is sensitive and can burn easily. The mechanisms are unclear, but it may be that the skin is particularly susceptible to the harmful effects of solar UV during childhood. The possibility that sun exposure during childhood stimulates the initial mutational step in the development of melanoma is supported by research. The cumulative nature of sun damage indicates that infants should be protected from exposure to UV from the day they are born. It is recommended that infants under 12 months are not purposely exposed to direct sun when UV levels reach three and above.
- The Australasian College of Dermatologists states that because very young babies (less than six months of age) absorb more of any chemical applied to the skin than adults, the widespread regular use of chemical sunscreens is not recommended. However, there have been no reports of side effects occurring as a result of sunscreen absorption in babies to date. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that sunscreens may be used on infants younger than six months on small areas of skin if adequate clothing and shade are not available.
- Many brands of sunscreen have a babies' or toddlers' formula. These are just as protective, but much gentler on their skin. Look for sunscreens that have been dermatologically tested for sensitive skin.
- Test the sunscreen on a small area of the child's skin to check for any skin reactions.
Slap on a sun protective hat
To help protect the neck, ears, temples, face and nose, children should wear a broad-brimmed, legionnaire or bucket style hat. Remember that:
- Baseball caps and visors offer little protection to the cheeks, ears and neck and are not recommended.
- Choose a style that can be adjusted at the crown or has a strap with a safety snap to avoid any possible choking hazards.
- Wearing a hat with a brim that shades the eyes can also reduce UV radiation to the eyes by 50 per cent.
Recommended brim width measurements
Try to use shade to protect your child whenever possible. Choose shady play spaces or take some shade with you. However, even when your child is in the shade, UV can still reach them, so it is important that children continue to wear a hat, appropriate clothing and sunscreen.
Slide on some sunglasses
Where practical, children should wear close-fitting, wrap-around sunglasses that cover as much of the eye area as possible. The sunglasses should meet Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1067:2003 and preferably be marked EPF (eye protection factor) 10. There are also swimming goggles with EPF 10. Optometry Australia recommends using eye protection all year.
During sun protection times, you can use a hat and sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV radiation. When UV levels are below three, SunSmart does not recommend the use of a hat for eye protection due to vitamin D requirements.
SunSmart role models for children
Children copy other people. Research has shown children are more likely to use sun protection measures if you do.
Convincing teenagers about sun protection
Although adolescents are usually aware of the dangers of too much sun, they often don't plan ahead or forget to use these measures.
When reminding your teenager about sun protection:
- Focus on the negative health and beauty effects of sun exposure – such as premature ageing, wrinkles, blotches, freckles or burnt, peeling skin. Teenagers are very conscious of their appearance, so this may convince them to take precautions.
- Give them a choice – allow your teenager to choose clothing and sunglasses they will be happy to wear and that will provide protection from the sun. Some surf clothing companies produce excellent bucket hats and wrap-around sunglasses that will offer good sun protection and be a style they may be comfortable wearing.
- Remind your teenager to take sunscreen with them when they leave the house. While sunscreen should be used in combination with other measures for best protection, many outdoor venues do not have sufficient shade, and teenagers may be reluctant to wear sun protective clothing and hats. Many young people who get sunburnt report that they forgot to protect themselves – reminding them frequently to pack and apply sunscreen can help.
- Work with your child's school – encourage your school to develop and implement a comprehensive sun protection or UV policy that includes relevant curriculum programs. Cancer Council's SunSmart Early Childhood and Primary Schools Program and Secondary School UV Program can provide you and your school with the resources and support you need. Contact the Cancer Council for information.
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- Local community health centre
- Maternal and Child Health nurse
- Cancer Council Tel. 13 11 20 for information and support
- Multilingual Cancer Information Line, Victoria Tel. 13 14 50
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