Should children be allowed to suntan?

Girl sunglasses

Not much beats the holiday feeling you get when you see your children playing happily in the sun. But a survey by the NHS and Met Office has prompted experts to remind parents of the skin cancer risks associated with letting children tan.

Why should I protect my child's skin from the sun?

A new study – conducted amongst 1,000 parents with children aged 11 and under – has revealed that one in 14 parents (7%) have never applied sunscreen to their children. This is worrying because sunburn in childhood can greatly increase the risk of developing skin cancer later in life, and repeated exposure to UV rays before 25 can also greatly increase the risk.

Of the survey's respondents, 10% had told their children to take their tops off in the sunshine to avoid tan lines. This contravenes NHS “slip slop slap” advice:

  • Slip on a t-shirt
  • Slop some sunscreen
  • Slap on a hat

So, is it safe for my child to tan at all?

A quarter (25%) of parents with children aged 11 and under who responded to the survey had encouraged them to get a tan one way or another. And one in ten parents (10%) of children aged 2-7 admitting to encouraging them to sunbathe. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) warns that there is no safe way to tan and states that babies, children and people with fair skin should take extra care in the sun.

OK, so tans are out – how can I protect my baby or child from the sun then?

When it comes to suncream, remember that your baby's skin is more sensitive than an older child. You should keep them out of the sun entirely before they're six months old. If they're over six months old, exposure to the sun should be kept to a minimum and you should apply a sensitive, hypoallergenic sunscreen regularly – particularly if they are in and out of the sea or a paddling pool. You should use a suncream of SPF15 or above that has UVA and UVB protection.

  • Keep your children out of the sun between 11am and 3pm when it is at its strongest.
  • If your child isn't walking yet, then let them sit and play in the shade – not in direct sunlight.
  • Protect your child's shoulders and the back of their neck if they're out playing – these are really common areas to get sunburnt.
  • Cover your child up in loose cotton clothes with long sleeves. Natural fibres will help the skin to breathe.
  • Put a sunhat on your baby or child, to shade their face and neck – even if they've got a full head of hair.
  • Your baby should wear sunglasses as early as possible to prevent damage to their eyes.
  • This might be easier said than done – so you might find a wraparound style will help them stay on longer. Sunglasses that carry the CE mark and meet the British Standard (BSEN 1836:2005) should also be worn. UV400 labels will tell you that they offer 100% protection from UV rays.
  • Make sure your child stays hydrated during hot weather.

Is tanning your skin ever safe?

A tan is a sign of the skin being damaged by UV rays but over a third of survey respondents (37%) incorrectly believed that suntans are a sign of good health. Your body produces melanin that makes your skin darken in an attempt to protect itself from further damage from UV rays. You should not be swayed by this though – if you've already been hitting the beach, an existing tan does not give you any further protection. Tan or no tan, sitting in the sun will damage your skin. Damage from UV rays can take 20 years to appear and you can't always feel when it is happening.

Can you get burned in the shade?

You can still burn in the shade and on a cloudy day – so it's best to apply suncream with SPF15 or above regularly in the months of May – September when your risk of UV exposure is at its highest.

Are sunbeds safer than tanning in the sun?

7% of parents with children aged 6-11 have allowed their children to use a UV tanning machine (sunbed). It has been illegal for anyone under 18 to use sunbeds in England, Wales and Scotland. Sunbeds give out stronger UV rays than the midday tropical sun – or, more frankly, give out what the WHO calls an “extreme” level of UV radiation. They can be even more damaging than the midday sun due to people using them more frequently than the sun coming out in the Skegness riviera. To keep your skin and your child's skin safe now and in the long-term, it really is best to follow sun safety guidelines.