Family Matters

Babies Need Serious Sun Protection to Prevent Cancer

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Too much time in the sun may be especially harmful for Baby, according to a review of new insights by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) into the importance of protecting young skin.

Baby and toddler skin differs considerably from the skin of older children and adults, so it’s important to protect infants from early on. The notion that babies don’t get sunburned is false; research has shown evidence of UV-induced pigmentation, starting with baby’s first exposure to summer sun. And those early changes, the AAP report says, may contribute to the development of skin cancer later on.

(More on Top Sunscreens, Ranked by Two Consumer Health Groups)

As a result, pediatricians need to emphasize the importance of staying safe in the sun to new parents. “We need to recalibrate our thinking,” says Amy Paller, the AAP report’s lead author and a professor of pediatrics and dermatology who is chair of the dermatology department at Northwestern University. “We need to be vigorous with sun protection from early on.”

What we know about sun protection is all based on studies in adults. But there are physiological differences between kids and adults in the barrier function of skin, with fluctuating lipid-to-protein ratios and various sizes of cells. Research has shown that the skin on the backs — or outside — of babies’ arms changes in pigmentation when they’re exposed to UV light.

“Even in the first summer of life, when we say, Oh, kids are not getting any sun, they are,” says Paller. “There is a measurable difference.”

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The AAP’s current recommendation is to apply sunscreen to babies six months and older — parents should use sunscreens with gentler, more moisturizing ingredients for babies — but Paller says that lower age limit is most likely flexible. “There’s probably no harm in putting sunscreen on a younger child, after the first few weeks.”

Sunscreen is only one defense against sun exposure for babies and children — as well as adults. You should also practice sun avoidance, especially for kids under 6 months old, which means staying out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day — 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Remember also to wear protective clothing. If you are using sunscreen, be sure to use enough and to reapply regularly.

(More on Time.comDermatologist Susses Sunscreen Cancer Risk)

Selecting appropriate sunscreens is another challenge. In general, physical sunscreens that rely on titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to block the sun’s rays, and sit on the surface of the skin, are preferable to chemical sunscreens, which contain chemicals that may be absorbed by the skin. It can be hard to find affordable physical sunscreens, though — often marketed as “natural” sunscreens — that don’t contain preservatives such as parabens, which some experts worry may disrupt the endocrine system. “It’s hard to get away from additives,” says Paller.

So are parabens a problem? “They can be a sensitizer, but they’re not as bad as many think,” says Paller.

Check out Healthland’s post on sunscreen ratings before you buy.