Advise Me

Creating a Sun-Safe Family Culture: 4 Strategies for Parents

When you think back to your childhood, there probably wasn’t as much emphasis on protecting your skin from the sun as there is today. 

Your parents might have had you put on sunscreen before a day at the pool or the beach, but it wasn’t an everyday thing. SPF 30 sunscreen — which experts generally recommend as the minimum today — wasn’t even introduced until the early 1990s. You wanted to avoid sunburn, but you may have thought that a slow, gradual tan that you built up over the summer was OK.

Today, we know a lot more about the risks of sun exposure, especially in childhood. As a parent, you want to protect yourself and your kids from skin damage and skin cancer

“Most skin cancers are caused by too much exposure to UV radiation from the sun. Damage to your skin from this UV exposure builds up over time and increases your risk of skin cancer,” said Mary Williams, a physician assistant specializing in surgical oncology with Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center. 

But you also want to spend time together, enjoying those beach and pool days, bringing picnics to the park and playing in your backyard. 

These guidelines can help you build smart sun habits in your family so your children grow up understanding why sun protection is important and what they need to do to stay safe outdoors.

1. Make sure your kids understand the dangers of sun exposure

You’ve heard it before, but do your kids understand how important skin protection is? Be sure they know that exposing their skin to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays is harmful. They risk sunburns, skin damage, premature aging and skin cancer

The sun’s rays can reach your skin even if it’s cool and cloudy, and they can reflect off water, snow and ice. Therefore, sun protection is important year-round. 

While everyone needs to protect their skin, it’s especially important for kids since their skin is more delicate and at risk for damage. Plus, kids tend to spend more time outside than adults, so they get more sun exposure. And sunburns in childhood are a major risk factor for skin cancer later in life. 

“Many people are unaware of how sun exposure, even from a young age, can increase your risk of skin cancer later in life,” Williams said.

Skin safety is also important for all families, regardless of their background. It’s a myth that people with darker skin don’t need sun protection. Anyone’s skin can be damaged by the sun.

2. Teach them that sunscreen is just one tool in their sun protection toolbox

Make sure they realize that applying sunscreen isn’t a free pass to spend all day out in the sun’s direct rays. Sunscreen is important, but seeking shade and wearing protective clothing are also necessary. 

Here’s how you can help:

  • Plan outdoor activities during the early morning or late afternoon when the sun’s rays are less intense. Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV radiation is strongest.
  • Find shade from trees, buildings, umbrellas, tents or canopies for outdoor play. Encourage breaks in the shade if staying shaded all the time isn’t possible.
  • Dress your family in UV-protective lightweight, long-sleeved clothing, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. If possible, look for clothing labeled with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating of 50+. “UPF describes how much protection a piece of clothing offers from both UVA and UVB rays,” Williams said.
  • Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, applying it generously and reapplying every two hours or after swimming or sweating.

3. Make sun safety fun for kids

You don’t want your kids to feel like protecting themselves from the sun is a chore or an obligation. Make it fun for them so they stick with it for life. It can help to:

  • Let them choose the sun-protective clothing and accessories they like. “When you buy new swimsuits, include a sun shirt and hat,” Williams said. They’ll be more likely to wear hats, sunglasses and long pants and sleeves if they have their favorite colors or characters. 
  • “Let children put sunscreen on you or themselves. I’ve found many children enjoy using the stick sunscreen,” Williams said.
  • Make a game out of sun safety, like a scavenger hunt where you find shady spots.
  • When you are shopping for the fun things you need for a new season of an outdoor sport, include sunscreen on the list.
  • Emphasize the connection between sun protection and outside fun, so they know when they protect themselves, they are getting ready to do something they enjoy.

4. Lead by example

Kids are always watching you, so if you’re taking steps to protect your skin from the sun, they’ll get the message that this habit is important. “Start prioritizing sun safety from a very young age and be a good example by practicing sun safety yourself,” Williams said.

Be sure to wear protective clothing and sunscreen and spend plenty of outdoor time in the shade. Emphasize how important sun safety is and how it’s something your family values. “If children know these elements are always part of outdoor fun in the sun, it becomes second nature,” Williams said.

The bottom line

Sun exposure can lead to sunburn, skin damage and skin cancer. So from a young age, kids need to learn why sun protection is important and the steps they need to take. You can help by setting a good example, making sun protection fun and helping them build good habits.

To find out more about sun safety for your family, reach out to an expert at Banner Health.

Other useful articles

Children's Health Dermatology Parenting Skin Cancer Safety