Kids Health Info

Safety: Sun protection

  • Australia has high rates of skin cancer, which makes sun protection very important for all Australians. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause sunburn, skin damage and eye damage. High UV exposure in the first 10 years of life can double the risk of melanoma, which is a type of skin cancer caused by too much exposure to the sun.

    You can protect your child from the sun by teaching them to become SunSmart and always using sun protection when UV levels are 3 or higher. It is also important to model good sun protection habits, as children learn by observing their parents’ and caregivers’ behaviour. 

    Sun protection times

    UV radiation isn’t like the sun’s light or heat, which we can see and feel. Even on a cool day, UV can damage our skin without us realising, which is why it is important not to rely on temperature to decide whether sun protection is needed.

    Check the sun protection rating before heading out (see the free SunSmart app or Bureau of Meteorology) – if the UV index is 3 (moderate) or higher, make sure your child’s skin is protected.

    During the warmer months (September to April in Victoria) it’s best to save trips to the playground, park or beach for early morning and late afternoon.

    How to be sun smart

    The Cancer Council Victoria’s SunSmart Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek, Slide program is a simple and effective way to reduce the risk of skin cancer.

    Slip on clothing to cover skin 

    • Put on clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
    • Choose lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that won’t make your child too hot.

    Slop on sunscreen 

    • Use SPF30 or higher broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen on your child’s face, arms, hands and any other skin that is not covered.
    • Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours. 
    • Sunscreen does not completely block out all UV radiation and should never be the only method of sun protection.  

    Slap on a hat 

    • Choose a hat that shades your child’s face, back of the neck, eyes and ears, and is a suitable size for your child’s head.
    • Broadbrimmed, Legionnaire or bucket hats are best. Baseball caps and visors are not recommended.

    Seek shade 

    • Try to use shade whenever possible. If you can, choose a shady place for your child to play, such as under a tree, shade sail or umbrella.
    • UV radiation can burn even when you are in the shade, so it is important you and your child also wear sunscreen, a hat and appropriate clothing.
       Slide on sunglasses
      •  Sunglasses are labelled with protection category ratings, which indicate how well they protect the eyes from UV radiation. Choose
        wrap-around sunglasses that are labelled category 2, 3 or 4. Category 1 or 0 sunglasses do not provide enough UV protection.
      • A soft elastic strap will help to keep sunglasses in place for babies and toddlers.

      Sun protection for dark skin

      Children with naturally darker skin types (e.g. olive skin, moderatley pigmented brown skin, or very dark skin) have a lower risk of sun damage and skin cancer.

      Darker skin types contain more melanin, which acts as a natural sunscreen, so sun protection measures (including the Sunsmart steps above) do not have to be as strict. However, children should still avoid sunburn.

      If your child has darker skin, they may be at risk of low vitamin D levels:

      • if they use too much sun protection
      • if they don’t have enough exposure to sunlight.

      Children with dark skin do not usually need to wear sunscreen during the autumn, spring or winter; however, hats and sunglasses are still important. See our fact sheet Vitamin D.

      If you are unsure about the level of sun protection your child needs, you should talk to your GP.

      Sunscreen and babies

      Babies under 12 months should not be exposed to direct sun when UV levels reach 3 or higher.

      The Australasian College of Dermatologists does not recommend the widespread use of sunscreen on infants under six months. Protection such as shade, clothing and broad-brimmed hats are the best protection for infants, with sunscreen used on very small areas of skin.

      Some parents worry about their child’s skin reacting to sunscreen. There are many sunscreens made for babies or toddlers that are gentle on sensitive skin. Test the sunscreen on a small area of your child’s skin to make sure they don’t have a reaction.

      Sun protection in the snow

      In the snow, there is a high risk of sun damage to exposed skin because UV levels can be a lot higher and you can be exposed to almost twice the dose of UV. This is because at high altitudes UV is more intense than at low altitudes, and the snow can reflect up to 90 per cent of UV radiation.

      Make sure you apply a generous amount of sunscreen to all exposed skin 20 minutes before going outside and re-apply every two hours.

      Treatment for sunburn

      Children can get sunburnt in as little as ten minutes, and depending on the severity, it can take a few days or weeks to heal. Treatment aims to help your child feel more comfortable.

      • Give your child plenty of water to drink so that they are well hydrated.
      • Cool you child’s skin with cold compresses or a cool bath.
      • If required, give your child simple pain relief medicine, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.
      • Prevent further UV damage by keeping your child indoors.

      Signs of severe sunburn include blisters, swollen skin and severe pain. If your child has any of these signs, take them to see your GP.

      Sometimes children can get heatstroke, along with sunburn. If your child’s sunburn is accompanied by fever, headaches or nausea and vomiting, take them to the GP.

      Key points to remember

      • Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause sunburn, skin damage and eye damage.
      • Be a role model for your children and participate in sun protection behaviours so they are more willing to do the same.
      • When the UV index is 3 or higher, make sure your child’s skin is protected.
      • Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on sunglasses.
      • Babies under 12 months should not be exposed to direct sun when UV levels reach 3 or higher, and avoid the use of sunscreen on babies under six months old.

      For more information

      Common questions our doctors are asked

      Does my child need to wear sunscreen if it is sunny in the early morning or late afternoon? What about during sunny days in winter?

      Generally the UV levels in the early morning or late afternoon as not as high so it is best to encourage play outside during these times. If the UV level is 2 or below, sunscreen is not needed. In fact, sunscreen is not recommended at these times, because children do need to be exposed to some safe levels of sunlight to ensure that they get enough vitamin D (see our fact sheet Vitamin D).

      However, whenever the UV level is above 3, your child should always be protected from the sun and wear sunscreen. So check the UV level rather than using the outside temperature, the season, or the time of day as a guide for whether your child needs sun protection.

      When should my children start having regular skin checks for moles?

      Children don’t need to have regular skin checks with a doctor or skin clinic. If you are concerned about any specific moles on your child, however, see your GP. From late adolescence you may wish to have your child’s moles checked more regularly, especially if they have a strong family history or melanoma, or they have fair hair, a fair complexion, light-coloured eyes and a lot of moles or freckles.

      Should I send my child to school with sunscreen?

      On days that will have UV levels of 3 or higher you should make sure your child is wearing sunscreen when they go to school. It is a good idea for your child to take their own sunscreen to school so they can reapply it every two hours. Teachers are not expected to apply sunscreen; however, the Victorian Department of Education and Training does encourage schools to have a sun and UV protection policy in place, and encourages schools to join the SunSmart program, which specifies that sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before going outside. 


      Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Community Information and Dermatology departments in consultation with the Cancer Council Victoria’s SunSmart program. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

      Reviewed November 2018.

      Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.

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    Disclaimer
    This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.