Remember when your parents slapped some sunscreen on you, took you to the beach, and left you to your own devices all day? And remember how you went home to compare sunburns with your siblings, lie in a bathtub of aloe vera gel, and predict who would start peeling first?
Yeah… those days are long gone. With everything we know about sun damage, premature aging, and skin cancer, today’s parents take sunburn prevention pretty seriously.
As they should: Melanoma is one of the most common cancers in America, and we have to assume some of those childhood roastings at the local beach are to blame.
You’d likely be happy to slather your new baby in sunscreen to protect them from the sun’s harmful rays — but sunscreen isn’t recommended in babies under 6 months old. So how the heck are you supposed to keep them safe?
Here’s what you need to know about preventing sunburns in babies, and — because mistakes do happen — how you can treat a sunburn that’s already taken place.
A sunburn happens when your skin is exposed to too much of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. This causes the outer layer of your skin to have an inflammatory response, just as it would if you touched your hand to a hot surface.
Within the first 4 to 6 hours after UV exposure, you’ll notice redness at the site of the sunburn. It may continue to deepen for the first 12 hours and it might become pretty painful.
Everyone’s skin is vulnerable to UV rays, even if you have naturally darker skin. But babies, in particular, burn extremely easily. Their skin is thin and delicate, meaning it doesn’t take nearly as much sun exposure to cause damage.
Babies also don’t have as much melanin as older children and adults. This skin pigmentation provides us with some natural protection against the sun’s rays.
There are two kinds of UV light to protect your baby from: UVA and UVB. While UVB is the most common culprit of sunburn, UVA exposure can cause premature signs of aging, like wrinkles and discoloration. Both types of UV rays can increase your chances of skin cancer.
Most sunburns don’t require emergency treatment, but there are a few easy ways to tell if they do.
A sunburn that’s warm, red, and simply uncomfortable or irritating can be treated at home, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
On the other hand, a sunburn that’s blistered or causes any of the following symptoms should prompt an immediate call to your child’s doctor:
- fever or chills
- confusion or lethargy
- general malaise, irritation, or feeling unwell
This could be a sign that your child is dehydrated, has heat stroke, or has sun poisoning and needs to receive medical care ASAP.
If your child’s sunburn is mild enough to be treated at home, you can help them feel better and speed up their recovery process in several ways.
What to put on it
You can soothe your baby’s sunburn with a cool, damp cloth, applied as often as needed. Be sure to use gentle soaps during bathtime — you don’t want to irritate their skin any more than it already is.
It may also be useful to keep your little one’s skin moisturized with a baby-safe aloe vera gel or mild lotion. Try to avoid anything with fragrances, which can cause irritation.
How to keep them comfortable
Cool baths, lots of fluids for hydration, soft and lightweight clothing — these easy remedies will go a long way toward making baby comfortable while they get through the worst of the sunburn.
If your child’s still cranky and irritable (or their skin appears swollen), you can usually give them an over-the-counter pain reliever formulated for children as long as you have your doctor’s OK.
Generally, acetaminophen is safe to use for babies of all ages, while ibuprofen is safe for babies over 6 months old — but if your child is under 2 years old, you should get specific dosing recommendations from your pediatrician rather than relying on packaging information.
What to avoid
While your baby’s sunburn is healing, it’s important to keep them completely out of the sun. Their skin is especially vulnerable when recovering from a previous burn.
You should also avoid messing with any blisters that pop up while the sunburn runs its course. Popping blisters increases the risk of skin infections.
Though it might be tempting, avoid applying ice to your baby’s sunburn, too. When damaged, their skin is too sensitive to handle an ice pack. Stick to cool compresses instead.
While very few of us escape our childhoods without getting a single sunburn, just because something is common doesn’t mean it can’t do any harm.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, your risk of getting melanoma — a type of cancer that occurs in the pigmentation cells of your skin — later in life more than doubles if you get even just one serious sunburn in childhood. (In this case, “serious” is defined as a sunburn that causes blisters.)
The potential for skin damage keeps adding up over time, so the more you burn, the more susceptible your skin grows to the risk of cancer. At the same time,
Unlike a lot of things in life you can’t do much about, sunburns can be prevented in most cases with enough know-how.
But since some prevention strategies — like slathering your whole body in sunscreen — aren’t safe for very young babies, here are all the things parents can actually do to prevent their kiddos from scorching in the sun:
Stay out of the sun
Sit in shady spots, pitch a UV-blocking tent or umbrella at the beach, and take frequent breaks from the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is strongest.
Use UV protection even on cloudy days
Just because you can’t see the sun shining doesn’t mean there are no UV rays making their way to your skin. Cover up and use sunscreen on yourself and your children over 6 months old if you plan to be outside all day, no matter how cloudy it is.
Speaking of covering up — your child needs a hat
Any kind of hat with a brim, especially one that goes all the way around the head, can do wonders to keep the sun’s rays off your baby’s face. Bonus? They’ll look adorable.
Consider lightweight clothing or rash guards
Covering up large parts of your baby’s skin cuts down on the amount of sunscreen you have to apply (and reapply!) if they’re older than 6 months and can serve as the main skin protector if they’re under 6 months.
If it’s very warm out, keep the clothing light in color and in weight (think white cotton), so your child doesn’t overheat. Bathing suits with rash guards also limit the need for sunscreen.
Use sunscreen on older babies
Sunscreen generally isn’t considered safe for babies under 6 months old, according to the
So, it’s best to keep them out of the sun entirely.
Don’t forget sunglasses
Your child’s eyes are sensitive to UV rays, too. If they’ll wear a pair of tinted specs, go for it!
More often than not, sunburn on your baby is an annoyance that’ll leave them looking pink and feeling a little uncomfortable for a few days. It’s not usually serious, but if they have signs of physical illness along with their burn, they should be taken for emergency care right away.
The bigger issue with sunburns in babies is long term, not immediate.
Because serious burns in childhood can increase melanoma risk later in life, you should take steps to help your child avoid sunburns. Thankfully, it’s easy — and a little prevention goes a long way!