How to keep children safe in the sun

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Summer is coming to its usual slow close – just when you think it’s safe to crack out the long jackets or stop wearing sunscreen, the sun pops out and you are melting, writes Melinda Uys, of The United States of Mama.

I’ve even become burnt hanging out washing or walking between shops in town. Most of the time this is manageable as an adult because our brains register that we are hot and probably frying our skin to a crisp and therefore recognise we’ve got to get out of the sun quick smart.  According to the Skin Cancer Council website, each year something like one out of every five Australians is treated for one or more skin cancers. “Treated” is a fancy word that doctors use for cutting spots out of you with a scalpel, or using one of those awful ice torch things, or worse. The thing about skin cancer is that in the vast majority of cases it is entirely preventable by simply staying out of the sun.

Tell that to a five-year-old on a hot summer’s day when they’ve been looking at a glistening pool all morning. Or when you left the house at 8am when it was cold and drizzly, now it’s 10am the sun is at full fury and you’ve left hats and sunscreen at home. Here are some tips on how to stay burn-free with the kids.


They reckon it’s bad to leave an emergency stash of sunscreen in the car but for me, sunscreen that may need to be reapplied every hour is better than none at all. I’m not organised to get around with a spare set of hats in my hand bag but if you are- fantastic.

Try a few

Not all sunscreens are made equal according to a few recent surveys, though the fine print showed that it’s actually really, really hard to accurately assess the efficacy of sunscreens. Having said that, we’ve been through quite a few and found that the Cancer Council sunscreen is really good. We like the Nivea stuff but it doesn’t ‘stick’ and irritates everyone’s eyes. The major supermarkets are always putting one brand or another on half price special, so pick one of each up and work out which one you prefer. There are also a lot of ‘natural’ sunscreens out there doing a great job in protecting people from the sun if you’re not into the weird sounding stuff they put in the supermarket ones.


Have you put sunscreen on your kids and then let them jump straight in the pool, only to marvel at the oil-like slick coming off them in the water? You’ve got to let it soak in for 10 minutes before they get completely wet or you might as well coat them in some Nutella and expect that to be there, three minutes later. A blob around the size of a 20 cent piece should be used per exposed limb. I always like to slap a bit extra on wherever their arms, neck and legs stick out of clothes and swimmers.


Like brushing your teeth, putting sunscreen on is a part of our morning routine regardless of what plans we have for the day. (At this point I’d just like to say that ‘routine’ by definition is ‘regular’ which can become ‘irregular’ depending on where my kids are on the “You’re Going To Make My Head Explode: JUST BRUSH YOUR TEETH!!!” spectrum of a morning. I try most mornings. Truly I do). Our son used to cry and run away when I got the sunscreen out, but now he just pouts. Progress methinks.


Applying sunscreen regularly and repetitively is really important, but always err on the side of caution. If it says ‘Waterproof 2 hours’ then you need to reapply at the 90 minute mark to ensure they remain protected. This will also help alleviate what I call ‘Racing Stripes’ on the bits you miss. After big days in the sun, our kids always had these red ‘bags’ under their eyes even though we’d applied sunscreen a few times a day. We worked out they were squinting when we put it on and were then not getting protection beneath their eyes. Just slap a bit more on. It won’t hurt.

Sunsafe wear

Hats are really important for kids (and adults) to wear at all times outside if only to protect the skin on their scalp. My grandfather (94 – what a champ!) has had fairly major reconstructive surgery on the top of his head after a huge skin cancer was found there. He’s been bald for most of his life and rarely wore a hat. Now he has a crater on his head. Luckily most schools have a ‘No hat no play’ rule which is also great for reinforcing sun safety to kids.

In regards to swimming, I’m no fan of the top-to-toe full length swimsuits some parents make their kids get around in, but it makes sense in a sun sense kind of way. In the full strength of the sun we have long sleeve rash shirts (all of us) which aren’t particularly flattering but they are protective.

Outsourcing to kids

Not for the fainthearted, getting your kids to apply their own sunscreen is a timesaver and teaches them new and exciting life skills like preventing skin cancer. I’m still gnashing my teeth and putting it on my own kids myself after a particularly irritating moment with thick zinc and new carpet. Take my advice and monitor your kids closely if they’re putting their own sunscreen on.

Modelling good sun safety

Wear YOUR hat, put YOUR sunscreen on, don’t tan YOUR body. Children learn from their parents, so by practising good sun safety yourself, your children see it as normal behaviour and follow suit.


And last but clearly not least, just avoid the sun. Be undercover between 8am and 4pm if you can. Make use of public pools with sunshades or which are indoors. Position ‘playtimes’ underneath a tree or some kind of shade. I’ve found a local shopping centre which has a free indoor playground and as an added bonus, it’s air conditioned! Unfortunately, we run the Hand Foot and Mouth Disease gauntlet every time we go, but that’s a whole other post on keeping your kids clean and healthy.

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