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Sun Protection for Kids

It’s one of the true joys of parenthood: exposing your kids to the wonders of the outdoors. Whether it’s an afternoon at the beach (and really, who doesn’t love that?) or a day on the water boating or fishing, kids love it. The fresh air, the sun and the sea, it all has a way of making a lasting impression on young minds. But there are also a few pitfalls to be aware of. We’ve all been sunburned at one time or another and it doesn’t feel good. But in kids, recent medical studies have shown that sunburns can lead to an increased rate of skin cancer later in life. One study in particular stated that pre-teens who were sunburned five or more times increased their lifetime risk of melanoma, a particularly virulent strain of cancer, by over 80 percent. Here’s what you need to know before you hit the beach or the boat for the day. First, understand the early warning signs of melanoma, the skin cancer most common in children. It begins in the melanocytes, which are the cells in the outermost layer of skin (the epidermis) that produce melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color. Dark-skinned people have cells that naturally produce a lot of melanin, while fairskinned people produce much less. Melanocytes commonly cluster together to form skin growths that we call moles (or nevi, in medical terms). Most people have several moles, maybe a lot more, and in most cases they don’t cause any problems at all. Sometimes though, because of a mutation, melanocytes can begin growing out of control, sticking together to form tumors, crowding out healthy cells and damaging surrounding tissue. This is melanoma. The good news is that when it’s caught early while it’s still on the surface of the skin, it can be cured. But if melanoma is not treated, it can grow into the skin until it reaches the blood vessels and the body’s lymph nodes. These two systems act like a super-highway for cancer cells, allowing them easy access to distant organs like the lungs or brain. That’s why early  detection of melanoma is so important, and also why it is so potentially dangerous.

Catching a Killer

Doctors recommend a rule of A, B, C, D, E when checking for melanoma—this applies to both adults and children. Asymmetry: the shape of one half of the mole is different from the other half; Border: the edges of a mole are ragged, blurred, irregular;
Color: uneven and including shades of black, blue-black, brown or tan; Diameter: changes in the size of the mole, usually an increase; Evolving: changes in the mole over a few weeks or months. But childhood melanoma might not fit into those categories.
Parents should also look for the following in kids: a mole that changes, grows or doesn’t go away; an odd-shaped or large mole; or a palecolored or red bump on the skin, especially one that itches or bleeds. Head for the docs if you see any of these on the young ones.

An Ounce of Prevention

So now that we know what to look for, let’s delve deeper into prevention. Locking the kids in a dark closet until they’re 40 isn’t the answer but by following a few simple guidelines we can reduce the risks substantially.

The first is to use sunscreen, all the time. And you probably need more than you think, applied more often. The rule of thumb here is “one, two.” You should be applying an ounce of sunscreen (the amount that would fill a shot glass, or about the size of a golf ball) every two hours. Granted this is for adults so kids may not take quite as much but you get the picture. You should be using a minimum of SPF 15 and for the beach or water-based activities that should ramp up to a water-resistant formula that’s SPF 30 or more. The broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection is also preferred as these are the most harmful kinds of rays. When it comes to sunscreen use it early and use it often. Get those kids lubed up and keep it up all day long.

Wrap ‘Em Up

Protective clothing is also paramount, and in some ways is even a better solution. Anyone who’s had to apply sunscreen to a squirming eight-year old knows it’s not fun (or even easy). But give ‘em a colorful lightweight performance shirt to wear and they’re happy as can be. Look for fabrics that carry a high Ultraviolet Protection Rating (UPF). Many brands have a UPF rating of 50-plus. Technical polyester is a great fabric because it wicks away moisture and dries rapidly; on the other hand, cotton is generally a poor choice as it has a much lower UPF rating and holds water next to the skin. Long sleeves offer great sun protection and will actually keep them cooler than short sleeves in the hot sun. Add a cap or floppy hat for the head and you’re almost there.

The Eyes Have It

Sun protection for the eyes is also paramount, especially for kids. This doesn’t mean they need a $300 pair of Costas but investing in sunglasses that are polarized and offer UPF protection also doesn’t have to break the bank either. Besides, they’ll have a lot more fun if they can actually see into the water rather than being blinded by the surface glare all day.


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