How to be sun safe

By Rachel Lawler
This article originally appeared in the May issue of Under 5 magazine
Sunshine can feel like a rare treat in the UK. Warm, dry days offer a great opportunity to get out and about and explore your local area, without the need for coats and boots. But while everyone is keen to enjoy the sun while it’s here, early years practitioners must remember to ensure that children are enjoying it safely.
Not only can sunburn be painful and uncomfortable for children, but it can lead to more serious problems later in life. Skin cancer is currently the most common form of cancer in the UK, with rates still increasing. Around 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year and seven people each day die from the disease.
Dr Anton Alexandroff, consultant dermatologist and spokesperson at the British Skin Foundation, explains: “It is very important to protect young children from excessive sun light exposure. It catches up with them years later and can cause problems later in life.” He also says that children need to be even more careful than adults when it comes to protecting their skin. “Children’s skin is thinner than adults’, so it is more sensitive to the sun.”

Take cover

One of the best ways to avoid sunburn is staying out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day – between 11am and 3pm.
Keeping children in the shade can also keep them safe. Dr Alexandroff says: “Children can safely enjoy being outdoors in sunny weather if they play in shaded areas or use sun protective clothing such as broad-brimmed hats, loose, long-sleeved tops and long skirts or trousers and sunglasses.”
Oversized t-shirts can provide great protection and there are swimsuits available with longer sleeves and shorts in UV-protective fabric for any water-based activities.
Trees and bushes can create lots of shade to play in, but if the shade available in your outdoor space is limited you could think about adding some parasols or an awning or building your own tents and shelters for the summer.

SunscreamUse a high factor sunscreen

You may also choose to use sunscreen to keep children’s skin safe.
Dr Alexandroff says lotions with Sun Protection Factor (SPF) are safe to use on children from age six months and above. “It is important to use sunscreen with a high SPF for young children to reduce the risk of sunburn at the time of exposure, as well as the risk of skin cancers when children are older.”

He recommends lotions with SPF 30 or 50 for very sunny days.

“Sunscreen should be reapplied every four hours, or more often if children have been swimming, sweating or playing in water. Be sure not to forget certain parts, such as the ears, back of neck, hands and feet!”

Early years providers may want to request that parents supply their own preferred sun-cream. Where this is the case they must ensure that it is a suitable SPF, clearly labelled and in-date. It is fine to store it in a child’s day-bag, to go home each day, or if it is to be kept on the premises, it can be stored in the child’s basket/drawer as appropriate.

If the setting decides to supply sun-cream, parents should be informed of the brand, SPF and how and when it will be applied. In both circumstances, providers should obtain written permission to apply the sun-cream as required.

Most sun-creams have a shelf-life of up to three years, but NHS Choices recommends that it is replaced each year. If parents supply their own, give them plenty of notice.

There is no need to record each application of sun-cream, unless it is a medicated product, sometimes used for children with a skin condition such as eczema, in which case it must be recorded as with any other medication.

Children should be shown how to apply sun-cream correctly and older children should certainly be encouraged to ‘help’ apply it to their own bodies, with practitioners going over the exposed areas of skin to make sure that no areas have been missed.

Practitioners should also be sun-safe, applying sun-cream, wearing sun-hats or covering up too. It may be tempting to ‘catch a few rays’ on a sunny day, but remember that as ‘role-models’ to young children we should always lead by example.

Be careful with fair skinLittle girls playing the sand

Children with very fair skin will need to be more careful in the sun.

You may advise their parents to dress them in protective clothing that covers their arms and legs, while also using a high SPF sunscreen.

These children should also seek shade during the hottest hours of the day.
Babies younger than six months old should always be kept out of direct sunlight, particularly around midday.
Don’t forget that children with darker skin tones also need to be careful in the sun. Sunburn in darker skin may not look red but could simply be tender to touch or they may complain that it feels tight or itchy.
You may want to recommend parents get children sunglasses for the hottest days – they should look out for a CE mark on the glasses to ensure that they are offering sufficient UV protection.

To Vitamin D or not to Vitamin D?

Essential for healthy bone growth, vitamin D is an important nutrient for all growing children. It is usually sourced through a healthy, balanced diet and exposure to sunlight. However, in the UK it is difficult to get enough sunlight to prevent deficiency so the Department of Health recommends that all children under five are given a daily vitamin D supplement.
Sunscreen can prevent the skin from making vitamin D, but sun protection should take priority so should still be used to prevent sunburn.
“If parents are worried about their children’s vitamin D levels, suggest they speak with their doctor who can give further advice.”


  • Keep children out of the sun between 11am-3pm
  • Babies under six months should never be left in direct sunlight
  • Let children play in the shade instead
  • If your setting has little shade, put up tents, gazebos or awnings to allow for play in the shade
  • Children should wear brimmed hats and loose long-sleeved clothing 
  • If splashing or paddling, children should wear longer-sleeved UV-protective swimwear. Or oversized T-shirts also provide good coverage
  • Use a high factor sunscreen (30 plus or 50 plus) applied every four hours — remember to put cream on necks, ears, feet, etc
  • You can ask parents to provide sunscreen, labelled with their child's name and kept in their day bag or drawer
  • You don't have to record the application of sunscreen unless it is a specially medicated suncream in which case you record as normal
  • Children need Vitamin D which you get from the sun but sun protection takes priority so you still need to apply suncream
  • Don't forget to lead by example and wear a hat and suncream yourself

Where next?

5 easy water play ideas


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