Skin contains a pigment called melanin, which is stored in special cells called melanocytes. When the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, it produces more melanin, darkening the skin. This process takes time, and it’s what we commonly call ‘tanning’.
When the skin gets too much sun at once, it will burn.
Fair-skinned children are most sensitive to sunburn, because their skin doesn’t have as much melanin as dark-skinned children. But darker-skinned children can also burn.
It doesn’t have to be a hot summer day for you or your child to get sunburned – you can still be sunburned on cool or overcast days.
Tanning isn’t healthy. It’s a sign that the skin has been damaged by UV radiation and that it’s trying to protect itself from further damage, which it does by producing more melanin.
Sunburn can vary from mild redness on the skin, to severe blistering, swelling and pain. As the burn heals, the blisters can burst and the skin will become itchy and start to peel. Most reactions to sunburn start several hours after the skin is exposed to too much sun. They’re at their worst around 24 hours later.
In the long term, sunburn causes premature wrinkling and an increased risk of skin cancer, including melanoma.
When to see your doctor
Take your sunburned child to the doctor if:
- your child has blisters that break open or blisters with murky fluid inside them
- your child has a fever, or is more tired than usual
- your child has nausea and vomiting or a headache
- you can’t control your child’s pain with the treatment measures outlined below
- there’s marked swelling in the area of the burn, or the burn itself looks infected.
Severe sunburn is treated like any other burn, and you should see your doctor immediately. Young children are vulnerable to dehydration, which also needs prompt medical attention.
If your child has only minor redness and soreness, and the skin feels warm, it’s a good idea to keep her indoors.
Paracetamol, given according to directions, can help to reduce the pain. Encourage your child to drink a lot of water to replace fluid loss caused by the burn. Showers might make the pain worse so gentle bathing in lukewarm water is better. It’s best to avoid using soap on the area of the burn.
Some ointments and creams available over the counter claim to soothe sunburn and usually contain some local anaesthetic. Using these on young children isn’t recommended. Avoid putting butter on a burn because it can actually make the burn worse and lead to infection.
For healthy development, your child needs to have a small amount of exposure to the sun. This can be as little as 10-15 minutes per day. Your child’s skin burns much more easily than adult skin, so taking care in the sun is important to prevent sunburn.
The ‘slip, slop, slap, seek and slide’ phrase, promoted by the Cancer Council Australia, is a helpful way of remembering ways to prevent sunburn:
Slip on some clothing to protect your child from the sun. Try to cover as much skin as possible.
Slop on some broad-spectrum, water resistant SPF 30+ sunscreen. Put it on your child 20 minutes before he goes out in the sun and remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours.
Slap on a hat. Wear a hat that protects the face, neck, ears and head.
Seek some shade. Keep out of the sun’s UV rays by staying in the shade. Look for areas of dark shade, and try to avoid UV rays that might be reflected from nearby objects – for example, windows.
Slide on some sunglasses. Make sure they meet Australian Standards.
It’s also important to stay out of the sun between the peak UV radiation times of 10 am – 3 pm.