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Got Snow? Get Sun Smart!

Sunscreen, protective gear and a little common sense can help parents protect their children’s skin all year long.

Winter is here, with the arrival of shorter days, snowy skies and winter sports. When it comes to protecting skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, parents have double duty - they need to protect their own, and their children’s sensitive skin. And while most parents do a great job of this during the summer, winter skin protection is often a different story.

Dr. Joseph Hong is a dermatologist in Linwood and member of the American Academy of Dermatology. He cautions parents that children especially need protection from the sun year round.

“Kids have more delicate skin than adults,” says Hong. “Younger skin can be more easily damaged, and the risks associated with unsafe sun behavior are greater.”

Hong encourages regular use of sunscreen for children from six months of age up through their teenage years. But he promotes a focus on what he calls “sun sense,” or common sense when protecting your skin from harmful UV rays.

“Is sun exposure less of a problem in the winter? Yes. The sun is at a different angle and the peak sun hours are shorter. But if you’re skiing or spending time outside, the sun’s reflection off the snow can make it that much more damaging.”

It’s easy to forget that UV rays are a factor in winter, especially when there is less sunlight and the days are cloudier. But the good news is that it’s relatively easy to add a few simple steps to your routine that will protect your children’s skin (and yours) all year long.

Be smart with sunscreen

Most people know that they should be wearing sunscreen year round, and yet many adults (and as a result, their children) go without. Many claim to use moisturizers with an SPF, or stay indoors all day, but these ‘precautions’ are misleading, and may contribute to skin damage. Not to mention the fact that steps parents take to protect their own skin have an impact on their children. Simply put, if your kids see you being careful about sun exposure, they are likely to do the same.

According to Hong, the biggest factor to be aware of is how much sun you’re actually getting. Applying a single coat of sunscreen, especially if you will be spending long hours outside, doesn’t provide as much protection as you think.

“The biggest problem with sunscreen is that it’s a false panacea,” says Hong. “It works well when it’s used properly, but you have to look at how you apply it.”

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people use approximately a quarter of the sunscreen they actually need. The average adult needs an ounce of sunscreen to cover the body, or enough to fill a shot glass. Obviously, less is required in the winter because more of the body is covered by clothing. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends at least a teaspoon to cover the face. Hong recommends reapplying every 90 minutes, and paying attention to areas that often get neglected like ears and lips.

Get your gear on

While many adults spend cold days indoors, it’s important for children to have time outside. There is also evidence that activity provides some protective factors from the sun. But keep in mind that in autumn and winter (even on cloudy days), kids still need their skin protected.

Plus, there’s good news about sun safety during non-summer months: it’s easy! Of course, people wear a lot of clothes to keep warm when they are outside in Fall and winter, so their skin is naturally protected. But faces and hands, which are exposed to UV rays most days of the year, still need care. If your child is in school or daycare, make sure they have sunscreen that either they or a caregiver can apply before recess. Just as important are a hat with a brim (even winter knit caps are made with these), gloves and lip balm containing sunscreen.

Winter activities like skiing and snowshoeing are fun ways to spend a lot of time outside, but be extra cautious. If you are outside in higher altitudes (many ski resorts are), your risk of damage is greater than at sea level. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UV exposure increases 4 per cent with every 1,000 feet you are above sea level. Falling or blowing snow and strong winds can actually wear away sunscreen, so reapplication of sunscreen is essential, as are lip balms, gloves and goggles or sunglasses to protect the sensitive skin around the eyes.

Be prepared

If you have young children at home, your day likely involves lots of running around, in and out of the bank or the grocery store, and maybe a visit to a playground or a walk outside. When winter hits and you’ve got kids in tow, consider your schedule when you think about sun protection. How much time will be spent outside? Will your child be in the light of a car window?

If your kids are older, will they be walking to school or practice? Most weather channels provide a UV index for the day. It can often be found with the weather report in your newspaper, or online, and is a great planning tool.

Set up a supply kit that you can keep in the car or your child’s backpack that has all the must-haves in case you’re unexpectedly outdoors for an extended period. Sunscreen for the face and lips, extra hats and a pair of gloves can easily fit in a small bag that you can take with you or give to your child’s caregiver or daycare. If your kids are school-age, consider this little sun pack as essential as pencils. Give them some ownership by letting them choose their own items, and maybe even a cool pair of sunglasses with UV protection.

Be consistent and be a good role model when it comes to protecting your skin. Show your kids that you care about your own skin health as well as theirs. No matter where you live or how you spend your winter, keep these sun safety strategies in mind as the temperature drops. Your kids (and your skin) will thank you someday.

No excuses

Let’s face it, the sun makes us feel good. When its presence is diminished during autumn and winter, many people have a difficult time dealing with darker, colder days. When your child wants to bask in the sun, keep these facts in mind to stay sun safe.

Any change to your skin’s pigment is damage. “There is no such thing as a healthy tan,” says Hong. “Tanned skin is damaged skin.” With skin cancer rates on the rise, it’s important to repeat this mantra, especially to teens who are likely to sunbathe or hit the tanning bed.

The benefits of Vitamin D from the sun do not outweigh the risk of damage from it. If you are worried about Vitamin D deficiency, talk with your child’s doctor about foods or vitamin supplements that can help.

Anyone can get melanoma - even people who tan easily or have dark complexions. While those with fair skin are at a higher risk for skin cancers, melanoma can strike people of all skin tones.

If sunscreen burns or stings when applied, you may just need a different type. Chemical sunscreens contain products that absorb and neutralize UV rays. This occurs through a chemical reaction, which could be what causes the burning sensation. Children or adults with sensitive skin should try a physical blocker, which contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and blocks UV rays. Keep trying different products until one feels right.

Clouds do not protect your skin from damage. Those cloudy winter days won’t keep you safe (unless they keep you indoors all day). Up to 80 per cent of UV rays penetrate clouds, so unprotected skin is still at risk when it’s grey out.

Beth is a freelance writer and mother of two.

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