The Science of Sunburns: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Jun 18, 2024 | Children's Health

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As the weather warms up and families spend more time outdoors, understanding the science behind sunburns becomes crucial for protecting our children’s skin.  

Jill Fruge, MD, dermatologist with Our Lady of the Lake Physician Group, shares about why sunburns happen and ways parents can prevent them. 

Why Does Our Skin Burn in the Sun?

Sunburns are essentially thermal injuries caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Dr. Fruge explains that our skin burns in a similar manner as it would if exposed to fire. 

The UV rays cause DNA damage within our skin cells, prompting our melanocytes (the cells that produce melanin) to increase melanin production in an attempt to protect the cell’s DNA. 

This increase in melanin is what leads to tanning. However, it’s important to understand that tanning is a sign that DNA damage is already occurring.

Understanding UV Radiation

UV radiation is divided into two main types: UVA and UVB rays. 

  1. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and are primarily responsible for premature aging and long-term skin damage.
  2. UVB rays affect the outer layer of the skin and are the main cause of sunburn. 

Both types of rays contribute to the risk of skin cancer, making comprehensive sun protection essential.

How to Prevent Sunburn in Children

Preventing sunburn is a critical part of safeguarding your child’s skin health, both now and in the future. Dr. Fruge offers several practical tips for parents:

  • Avoid Peak Sun Hours: Try to stay indoors or seek shade during the hottest parts of the day, typically between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • Protective Clothing: When they’re going outside, dress your children in protective clothing such as rash guards, hats and long sleeves.
  • Regular Sunscreen Application: Apply sunscreen to your child’s exposed skin regularly, at least every two hours. If your child is swimming or sweating, reapply more frequently, especially after toweling off.

The Long-Term Impact of Sunburns

Dr. Fruge emphasizes the importance of protecting skin from sun exposure during childhood. 

“Sunburns and sun exposure as a child are the biggest predictors of skin cancer as an adult,” Dr. Fruge says. This makes it vital for parents to be vigilant about sun protection to reduce the risk of skin cancer later in life.

Additional Sunburn Prevention Tips

Sunburn prevention is an important aspect of overall healthcare, especially for children. The habits you instill today can help prevent serious skin issues in the future.

  • Use Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen: Choose a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • Don’t Forget to Cover All Exposed Areas: Pay special attention to commonly missed spots like the ears, back of the neck and tops of the feet.
  • Hydration Is Key: Encourage your children to drink plenty of water, as staying hydrated can help maintain skin health.
  • Set a Good Example: Model sun-safe behaviors yourself. Children are more likely to follow suit if they see their parents practicing good sun protection habits.

By making sun safety a priority, you can ensure that your family enjoys the outdoors while minimizing the risk of sunburn and long-term skin damage.

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