Cancer Counil ACT recommends that babies are not puposely exposed to direct sun (UVR) ie when UV levels are 3 or above.
Your baby’s skin is extremely sensitive because it is thinner than your skin and can damage easily, by taking sensible sun protection precautions early on, you help reduce your baby’s risk of developing skin damage that may lead to skin cancer later on in life. Babies should not be purposely exposed to direct sun (UV) exposure when UV levels reach 3 and above so always use shade and sensible sun protection when spending time in the sun during this period. When UV levels are ‘low’ (under 3) small amounts of direct sun exposure is considered safe and may assist bubs with vitamin D.
How the sun’s UVR burns - it’s what you can’t see that matters!
The damage which leads to skin cancer isn’t caused by the heat in the sun’s rays, but by ultraviolet radiation or ‘UVR’. UVR cannot be seen or felt on the skin. It comes directly and indirectly from the sun, and is also scattered from blue sky particles. UV radiation is also reflected by many surfaces, such as snow and sand.
Young children often copy those around them and learn by imitation. Research shows that if adults adopt positive sun protection behaviors, the children in their care are also more likely to do the same.
Take care during “peak UV” radiation times
- aim to minimise outdoor experiences and events between 11am and 3pm during the daylight saving/summer period in Canberra- this is when annual UV levels are at their most intense.
- organise your daily routine around the peak UV radiation times, especially during the daylight saving/summer period. (For example, take a stroll earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon and try to focus on indoor activities during the middle of the day in summer. Remember sun protection will still be required if UV levels are 3 and above, regardless of the time).
- parents and carers are encouraged to become familiar with daily UV levels and sun protection times. Remember that sun protection is recommended when UV levels reach 3 and above!
- upload the SunSmart App to your phone so you know what UV levels are doing when you are out and about with your baby.
Hats and Clothing - Your FIRST line of defence
- for the best protection against damaging UV radiation, you should dress your baby in loose outfits that cover their arms and legs. Natural fibres are usually the coolest however remember the closer the weave of the material the better the protection against UV radiation. But be careful about heat stress - make sure your baby is well ventilated.
- when your baby begins to hold their head up, you can dress it in a soft legionnaire style hat, with a flap at the back that will crumple easily when they put their head down.
- when your baby learns to sit unaided, a soft legionnaire hat with a ‘safe’ tie under the chin would be the most practical. It’s a good idea to get your baby used to wearing a hat as early as possible as they will be less likely to resist it when they are toddlers because it won’t feel strange to them.
- some clothing products carry an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating. This rating indicates the amount of UV radiation blocked by the fabric and the amount of UV radiation that passes through, but it does NOT rate the style or design of the product!
What about sunscreen?
The Australasian College of Dermatologists states that because very young babies (less than 6 months of age) absorb more of any chemical applied to the skin than adults, the widespread regular use of chemical sunscreen is not recommended.1
- Some parents may choose to use sunscreen occasionally on small parts of their baby’s skin – if that’s the case parents should be careful to choose a sunscreen that is suitable for babies - they may wish to seek the advice of a doctor or pharmacist. Sunscreens for babies usually use reflecting ingredients such as zinc oxide and avoid ingredients and preservatives that may cause reactions in young skin.
- Some babies may develop minor skin irritation in response to sunscreen use. True allergic contact dermatitis to the active chemicals in sunscreen is very rare, but may result from reactions to preservatives or perfumes in the product. It is recommended to seek medical attention if any unusual reaction is observed.
Out and about with your baby.
- try to actively seek shady places to sit with your baby when you’re out and about.
- you could pack the following items in your baby travel bag: a tube of sunscreen, a small sheet or blanket, a soft legionnaires hat (depending on the age of your baby) and perhaps a baggy romper suit which provides coverage for the legs and arms.
- if you are out driving in the car, remember to check how the sun is filtering into the car so you can shield your baby if they’re in direct sunlight. There are vinyl ‘static cling’ window tints for cars (which stick to car windows and can be peeled off easily) and a number of other designs aimed to block UVR that can penetrate through car side windows.
- when purchasing a pram or stroller, check if the hood position can be altered – so that it can be moved to block out the sun. Check if it comes with an adjustable canopy, other shade or portable umbrella that can be used for this purpose too.
- you can keep a dark coloured, compact umbrella in your car or baby travel bag so you always have something to use for shade.
- try packing a beach cabana, sundome or beach umbrella in the boot of your car and keeping it there – that way it’s always available for picnics, BBQs or visits to friends.
- shop around for sun protection items – you can buy sunglasses for children as young as six months; look for beach umbrellas, sundomes or cabanas and backyard shade structures etc.
- you can also keep a small light sheet in the pram so that it can be draped over the hood and bassinette of the pram to block out direct sunlight. It’s best to only do this if you have no other alternative (like seeking the shade of a tree or verandah). You’ll need to supervise this at all times to make sure the sheet does not drop onto the baby and that the pram remains well ventilated.
- do not confuse ‘shade’ with ‘shadow’. If you can see blue sky/sun above you, you may still be exposed to direct UVR. Ie aim to sit closer to the tree’s trunk where there is good foliage cover above you to physically block UV.
- sunglasses are not really practical or necessary for babies that are properly shaded and protected. However, good sunglasses are not a fashion item reserved only for the protection of adults’ eyes. Your children’s eyes need protection from the sun’s UVR too.
- it’s a good idea to get your baby used to the idea of wearing sunglasses early, you might start with sun goggles held on by elastic.
- when your baby becomes a toddler, look at the many styles of sunglasses on the market that have been especially designed for young children. Look for designs that are close fitting, wrap-around and meet Australian Standard 1067, preferably marked EPF (Eye Protection Factor) 10. Make sure they are labeled a catagory 2, 3 or 4 and NOT ‘fashion spectacles’.
What about Vitamin D and sun exposure?
Australia’s high ultraviolet radiation levels mean that even when babies are outdoors for very short periods (incidental exposure) they are likely to receive enough ultraviolet radiation exposure to maintain their daily vitamin D needs. Small amounts of daily sun exposure is necessary for the body to maintain its vitamin D needs. Due to the very low levels of ultraviolet radiation in the ACT region in winter, Cancer Council ACT does not generally recommend sun protection around the June and July period in Canberra. In practice this means that the use of hats and sunscreen can be relaxed during this winter period or when daily UV levels are low (under 3). However, parents should still consider winter time sun protection if travelling north of Canberra or in the alpine regions, if their children are particularly susceptible to sunburn, or if spending extended periods outdoors in the sun, say on a picnic or at an event. Small amounts of direct sun exposure is considered safe for babies when UV levels are under 3 (low).
Families with children who have naturally very dark skin who rarely/never burn are encouraged to discuss their sun protection and vitamin D requirements with their GP. However sunscreen can be used all skin types.
For more about UV exposure and vitamin D click here.
Jaundice and Nappy Rash
Neonatal jaundice generally only causes concerns in about 10% of infants. Treatment for jaundice should be under medical supervision in a controlled environment. Exposing infants to direct natural sunlight is inappropriate to treat neonatal jaundice.
Appropriate recommendation for nappy rash includes frequent nappy changing, applying barrier creams to affected areas and exposing the inflamed area to the open ‘air’ as much as possible. The practice of exposing a naked infant to direct sunlight puts them at risk of sunburn and skin damage and therefore also not recommended.
Further information and resources
This information is based on current available evidence at the time of review. For further information or advice contact Cancer Council 13 11 20 or view Cancer Council Australia's Position Statement: Sun protection and babies.
This information can be photocopied for distribution.
1. Australasian College of Dermatologists. A-Z of skin: Sun Protection & Sunscreens. [homepage on the internet] ACD; 2016 [cited 2017 Jan 10]. Available from: https://www.dermcoll.edu.au/atoz/sun-protection-sunscreens