This summer expect to hear a lot about ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, the similarly evil twin of the sun's ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. UVA doesn't typically cause visible skin damage - a tan or a sunburn - but it may be as harmful in the long run. UVA rays have been linked to premature aging of the skin and mutations that result in skin cancers, such as melanoma, says Dr. Sheldon Pinnell, professor of dermatology at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C.
To protect your child from both short- and long-term skin damage due to sun exposure:- Look beyond spf numbers. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) index measures only UVB protection, so until the FDA comes up with an alternative scale for UVA (which might not happen for several years), your best weapons against this kind of radiation are products touting UVA/UVB, or "broad spectrum," protection. Look for ingredients that block both, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, or the UVA shield avobenzone (brand-name Parsol 1789).
- Apply, reapply, then apply again. Most sunscreen chemicals require between 20 and 30 minutes to bond effectively with dry skin, which means they need to go on before kids go outside.
- Even "water resistant" and "all day" sunscreens should be reapplied every two to three hours - more often when kids perspire heavily, swim, play roughly or towel off after a dip. In fact, the FDA now discourages manufacturers from using the term "waterproof," says agency spokesperson Ivy Kupec, "because consumers feel they're fully protected."
- Don't rely solely on sunscreens. For added protection, try to keep kids in the shade between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when UVB rays are strongest. Hats and other protective clothing are also good sun shields - particularly important for babies under 6 months old, whose skin is too sensitive for sunscreen.