Here Comes the Sun. Protection for Your Littles and How to Treat Sunburn & Overheating

With Dr. Julia DeVita Owens, Novant Ballantyne Pediatrics

Summer months in the Carolinas mean days with approximately 15 hours of sunlight!

This beautiful weather leads to more opportunities for you and your family to get outside and be active. However, the summer months also lead to increased sun exposure. Skin cancers are known to be increasing in younger people, and sunscreen and sun protection play a large role in reducing this risk in adulthood.

With the upcoming Fourth of July week, we spent some time talking to Dr. Julia Owens, a pediatrician with Novant Health Ballantyne Pediatrics, about some tips for keeping your entire family safe out in the sun.

The A’s and B’s of Sun Protection: UVA and UVB Sunscreens

There are two main types of UV light, known as UVA and UVB, that play a role in skin
damage and skin cancer formation. I always tell families to remember the mnemonic
that UVA causes “aging” and UVB causes “burns.

Between 10 am and 4 pm is when the sun’s rays beat down the hardest and when people are highest risk of burn. During this period, a broad-spectrum sunscreen, that covers both UVA and UVB, is vital, because it can take as few as 15 minutes to get a sunburn.

When purchasing a sunscreen, always look at the sun protection factor (SPF) that a sunscreen provides. I recommend that families purchase sunscreens ranging from at least SPF 30 to 50. Sunscreens that offer SPF level over 50 offer very little difference in terms of sun protection. For maximal sun protection, SPF should be applied at least 15- 20 minutes before going outside and reapplied at least every 2 hours.

Many families ask me about which brands of sunscreens to buy, since the over-the-counter options are endless and often overwhelming. I typically steer families towards mineral sunscreens. These types of sunscreens use minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to form an opaque white layer that sits on top of the skin. While some older children and teens may not like the cosmetic appearance of the white layer on the skin, I prefer these sunscreens in younger children because they do not soak in the skin and have possible systemic effects like some other type of sunscreen chemicals.

Lately, there has been a lot of debate regarding the FDA approved sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and avobenzone. In recent years, there has been some emerging evidence that oxybenzone is absorbed into the body and can have some mild hormonal effects. Additionally, these chemicals are known to be more irritating to the skin. Studies are showing that the levels of oxybenzone entering our environment are contributing to coral reef bleaching and also impacting the development of aquatic organisms. If mineral sunscreens are better for our kids and our environment then let’s go for it!

If your child has sensitive skin, you’ll also want to read the ingredients and see if they contain any fragrance, dyes, phthalates or PABA which are known to irritate sensitive skin. I additionally prefer cream-based screens instead of sprays. I worry that sprays do not create a thick enough layer on young skin and also can be ingested by young children.

Some cream-based mineral sunscreen brands that I love for young children include Thinkbaby SPF 50, Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin, and Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby.

A Note on Infants, Sunscreens and The Summer Heat

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to avoid sunscreen in infants less than 6 months. This is because a baby’s skin is more prone to sunscreen’s side effects, such as irritation and skin outbreaks. Also, baby’s skin may absorb more of the chemicals found in sunscreen than older children and adults.

The best option for young infants is to keep them inside during the hot summer months or use clothing to provide a barrier to the suns’ rays. If you are in a position where you have to be outside and there are certain areas unable to be covered, it is ok to use sunscreen in babies less 6 months in small amounts.

I always remind families that in the first few months of life, a baby’s sweat glands are fairly non-functional. You might notice some sweat on a baby’s face, but they cannot typically generate enough sweat to functionally cool themselves. Because of this, babies are prone to overheating during hot summer days. All young infants should be kept inside when the heat index is over 90 degrees. Signs of overheating in a baby can include skin flushing, breathing quickly, fever, and fussiness. If you are noticing these signs, be sure to unbundle your infant and get them in some air conditioning.

The C’s of Sun Protection: Clothing and Skin Coverage

Clothing and hats are as effective, if not more, than sunscreen on certain areas of the body. In young children, I recommend using sun protective clothing in tandem with sunscreens. These layers of clothing provide a great degree of sun protection while also reducing the need for reapplication. Pulling young kids out of the pool for sunscreen reapplication often leads to meltdowns and is tedious for everyone involved. Clothing helps reduce the amount of skin where sunscreen needs to be reapplied and can make for a more enjoyable day for the entire family.

Look for lightweight clothes that have a UV protection factor or that have a tighter weave. Clothing with tighter weaves form a better barrier to the sun ray’s than clothing with a loose weave. If you are not sure how tight a fabric’s weave is, hold it up to the light. The less light the penetrates through the clothing the better.

For infants, look for sun protective onesies, such as the ones made by the brand Coolibar. These onesies protect the majority of the skin from the sun’s rays and are known to block about 98% of the sun’s UV light. For older children, many other sporting stores and clothing retailers sell sun shirts and rash guards that offer UV protection to the abdomen and arms. Check out Target and REI.

When using a hat for face protection, make sure to choose one that has a 3-inch brim. Baseball caps do not adequately protect the neck and ears. And don’t forget the shades!

Sunglasses make for a cute photo opportunity and also help protect the eyes from sun damage. Look for a sunglass with at least 99% UV protection.

The D of Sun Protection: Damage control

The sun can be unforgiving in the Carolinas and inevitably sunburns happen. If your child gets a sunburn, have them take a cool (not cold) shower or bath to soothe the skin. You can also apply cool compresses and aloe gel to help calm the angry skin. If this is not enough, Tylenol and Motrin can be effective for pain management in the initial days after a burn. Be sure to push fluids for the next couple of days- sunburns can predispose people to dehydration.

If blisters are present, do not pop or break them open. This creates an opening in the skin that can lead to infection. Make sure the area that is burned stays full covered by clothing or shade until the burn has fully resolved.

‘Sun poisoning’ refers to severe burns from UV exposure and symptoms can include:

  • skin blistering
  • fever
  • dehydration
  • dizziness or confusion
  • GI distress
  • swelling
If you or your child develops these symptoms, be sure to see a medical professional immediately.

We at scoopcharlotte and Novant Health Ballantyne Pediatrics wish you and your family a happy and safe July 4th week and Summer enjoying the outdoors. If you have any further questions regarding sun protection or burn management, be sure to set up a time to meet with a pediatrician like Dr. Julia Owens for more guidance.

Novant Health Ballantyne Pediatrics

Dr. Julia DeVita Owens

14215 Ballantyne Corporate Pl
Ste 130
Charlotte, NC 28277-3671
Phone: (704) 384-1950

Hours of operation:

Monday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.