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Our experts offer sun safety and protection tips for the summer.

There are so many reasons to love summer, but summer also means increased exposure to the sun’s harmful rays. We share some sun safety advice.

At least 80% of sun-induced skin damage happens before age 18, so your child’s precious skin needs proper protection to limit the risk of developing skin cancer in later years.

“Children have very delicate skin because the epidermis, or outermost layer of the skin, is still thin. This means high doses of ultraviolet (UV) rays can reach the deeper layers of the skin quickly,” says cosmetic doctor Maureen Allem. “While skin cancers are fortunately rare in children, one blistering sunburn in childhood more than doubles the chances of developing a melanoma later in life. So, it’s vital to start sun protection at an early age.”

Although children respond differently to the burning effect of UV radiation, (a dark-skinned child will burn slower than a freckled, red-haired child with milky skin), the effects can be just as damaging. “Melanin, the pigment that gives skin its colour, helps protect the skin against the effects of the sun, but only to a certain degree. In dark skins, melanin provides a sun protection factor (SPF) about four times higher than in white skin. However, this does not mean that darker-skinned children cannot get sun damage and skin cancers. All skin types need to be protected from the sun’s harmful rays.”

Block it out

When it comes to sun safety, the first line of defence is applying a high factor sunscreen. “While no lotion, cream, spray or ointment can totally block out the sun’s rays, depending on the SPF of the product you use, your child should be protected from 90 to 98 percent of UV rays,” says Michelle Armstrong, brand manager of a sunscreen manufacturer in Durban. “Sunscreen is made from a long list of ingredients (see “what’s in your sunscreen?”). This is because a combination of UV filters have to be included to ensure full broad-spectrum protection. In a SPF50+ product, more than a third of the raw materials are filters. The higher the SPF, the thicker the formulation will feel on your skin.”

Armstrong recommends choosing extra water-resistant products with a high SPF to ensure sun safety. “Urocanic acid (UCA) is a biochemical substance naturally occurring in human skin. Together with melanin, UCA is among the most important components of the skin’s own UV protection system. Swimming can cause the amount of UCA in the skin to decrease, which is why it’s important to choose products that are extra water resistant to ensure they stay on longer while your child is in the water.”

Read why including sunscreen in your child’s school bag is essential.

Apply it correctly

Different sunscreen brands have different shelf lives, but if you apply sunscreen correctly, enough for a visible layer before rubbing it in, a bottle should last only four to five full body applications. If there is no expiration date, throw away any sunscreen that is older than three years. Extreme temperatures will also shorten the shelf life of your sunscreen, advises The Cancer Association of SA (Cansa). Sunscreen should be applied to any exposed skin, including lips, ears, back, neck and the tops of  feet. It’s also important to only buy a reputable brand of sunscreen or one that has the Cansa seal of approval. Use lip balm with a UV factor to protect lips.

Cover up

For additional protection, wear clothing or swimming costumes made from UV factor fabric. “The materials used in UV fabrics themselves are not special, rather it’s the way the fabric is constructed, the quality of the filaments and the density of the weave that gives swim wear fabrics a higher UV rating,” says Peter Constan-Tatos, of a protective clothing manufacturer based in Johannesburg. “Cansa administers this with a range of colour-coded labels, ranging from 30+ to 50+ ultraviolet protection factor (UPF).” A UPF50+ garment allows you to stay in the sun 50 times longer than if you were not wearing any protection. Your child should also wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect their face from harmful UV rays. Some hats are available in UPF fabric.

Shade your eyes

Cape Town optometrist Magdel Lindemann says children’s eyes are more vulnerable to sunlight because their corneas, lenses and fluids are clearer, allowing more light to reach the retina. “Studies show that small amounts of ultraviolet radiation over a period of years may increase the risk of developing cataracts and may cause irreversible damage to the retina, the nerve-rich lining of the eye that is used for seeing.” She adds: “Cumulative damage of repeated exposure may also increase the risk of developing skin cancer around the eyelids.”

Lindemann says effective sunglasses should block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays. According to Cansa, UVA rays penetrate deeply into the skin, causing aging and increasing the risk of cancer. UVB rays cause the browning reaction, known as “tanning”, and also increase the risk of skin cancer.

“How light or dark the lenses should be is a matter of personal preference. UV protection comes from a chemical applied to the lenses and not their colour, so I recommend a medium tint. Light lenses don’t offer much comfort in bright sun and very dark ones will prompt your child’s pupils to expand to let in more light – along with more UV radiation. Large lenses and wrap-around styles that fit close to the eyes are best as they protect the delicate areas around the eyes.”

Sun safety tips

  • Keep your child out of the sun between 10am and 3pm, when rays are at their most harmful.
  • Never expose babies to direct sunlight. Babies younger than six months should not have sunscreen applied.
  • Always apply sunscreen on dry skin and reapply often if your child is swimming.
  • You can’t add SPF numbers. If an SPF 10 product gives your child an hour in the sun, adding another layer won’t give your child another hour. If you want longer exposure use a higher SPF sunscreen.

Read more about sun safety and sun and water safety.

Did you know?

  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in South Africa. There are about 20 000 reported cases every year.
  • UV radiation is not felt as heat on the skin. Even on a cool and cloudy day, the radiation may be just as damaging as on a clear, sunny day.
  • You can monitor harmful UV rays with a Cansa UV-Smart armband that turns darker in colour as the UV rays intensify.
  • The UV radiation in sunlight is an important source of vitamin D, essential for bone growth and the immune system. This means that some exposure to the sun, outside of the danger period, may be good for you.

What’s in your sunscreen?

For the best sun safety protection, it’s important to choose a sunscreen that does not contain skin-damaging chemicals.  Sunscreen ingredients fall into two categories:


These create a chemical reaction to absorb UV. Absorbers that are tested and approved as safe to use by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) are homosalate, octisalate (also called octyl salicylate), octinoxate (also called octyl methoxycinnamate or OMC), octocrylene, avobenzone and oxybenzone. Oxybenzone, a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin, can, however, trigger allergic reactions in certain individuals so caution should be taken when choosing products with oxybenzone.


These are physical barriers that block or reflect UV rays away from the skin. Reflectors considered safe to use are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.
Avoid products that contain retinyl palmitate. This is a form of vitamin A that can form free radicals. Also avoid sunscreens with added bug repellent, as toxic pesticides can be harmful to your child’s skin.

If your child has sensitive skin, opt for sunscreens containing zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, kaolin or talc, which provide the best sun protection.

Organic sunscreens, which don’t contain toxic cosmetic ingredients, are available at local health shops and pharmacies. Remember that tanning oils and creams, such as cocoa butter or coconut oil, do not protect the skin, unless it clearly states on the container that sunscreen protective ingredients have been added.

Read about the sun and Vitamin D and how to ensure just enough of both.

Vanessa Papas