What Parents Should Know About Sun and Sunburns in Children

JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page

March 27, 2023

Anna C. Wood, MD1Laurie W. Albertini, MD1Lindsay A. Thompson, MD, MS1

JAMA Pediatr. 2023;177(5):547. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5907

Enjoying time outdoors is good for our mental and physical health.

When out with your children, it is important to protect them from sunrays on sunny and cloudy days. Every sunburn will increase a person’s risk of having skin cancer later in life. Practicing sun safety can prevent skin aging and cancer.

The sun makes 2 types of ultraviolet (UV) rays, UVA and UVB, that are responsible for most sunburns. These rays are strongest between 11 am and 3 pm, making this the most dangerous time to be exposed to the sun. People with light skin, blue eyes, and blonde or red hair are at higher risk for sunburns, but all skin types, dark or light, are at risk for damage from sunrays.

The first step to preventing burns is to avoid sun exposure during the middle of the day when the sun’s rays are strongest. Children younger than 6 months should stay out of direct sunlight when possible. When planning an outing, remember that sunrays can bounce off water, snow, sand, and concrete.

There are different words used in sunscreen labels that are important to understand. Sun protection factor (SPF) tells us about the sunscreen’s ability to protect your skin from sunburns. A broad-spectrum label means protection against both UVB and UVA rays. Picking sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher and that is broad spectrum is best.

There are 2 types of sunscreens that can protect your child’s skin from the sun’s UV rays. Mineral sunscreens block rays by reflecting them from you. You will usually see labels with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as the main ingredients. Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin and convert UV rays into heat to avoid burns. You can use either sunscreen type to protect children from the sun. Sunscreen should be used on cloudy days as the sun’s rays are still able to get through clouds to us.

You should apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside to ensure good coverage and absorption into skin. The amount of sunscreen that you use is important. Most people do not use enough sunscreen to protect their skin. Most adults need to use 1 oz (30 mL) to cover their whole body; smaller children need less. Sunscreen should be reapplied every 2 hours or after any water activity or sweating.

Clothing can be another protective measure against sunburns, and the type of clothing you wear is important. Tighter weaves and darker colors are more shielding than stretchy and faded garments. A UV protection factor (UPF) number tells how effective a fabric is at blocking out harmful UV rays. While your regular clothes can provide some protection to your skin, clothing with UPF labels will be more effective.

Children should also wear wide-brimmed hats outdoors to protect their faces, ears, and necks as well as sunglasses with UV protection to protect their eyes.

Sunlight gives so many health benefits for our minds and bodies, but it is important to enjoy time outside safely. These recommendations can help you and your family stay safe on sunny days.

The JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page is a public service of JAMA Pediatrics. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your child’s medical condition, JAMA Pediatrics suggests that you consult your child’s physician. This page may be downloaded or photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, email reprints@jamanetwork.com.

Published Online: March 27, 2023. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5907