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Sunshine improves our mood and makes us feel happy but what about the long-term damage to our skin?

Before looking at what parents should and shouldn’t do, we need to understand the reasons why too much sun can be bad for us:


Sunlight consists of a wide range of different wavelengths of radiation. Some of these we can sense – the warmth we feel in sunlight comes from Infra-Red radiation, and the light we can see comes from radiation in the visible spectrum. There are other wavelengths in sunlight that we can’t see, and chief among these are those in the Ultra-Violet group. There are at least three different types of Ultra-Violet radiation and these are generally referred to as UVA, UVB and UVC.

UVC Radiation

UVC radiation is the shortest wavelength and although it is potentially harmful to our skin, it is completely filtered out by the earth’s atmosphere and so does not affect us.

UVB Radiation

UVB radiation causes the appearance of a tan after sun exposure. It does this by stimulating the formation of the pigment ‘melanin’ in the deeper layers of the skin and activates it’s movement to the outer skin layers. Here it acts as an antioxidant and skin protector – it is part of our natural defence against sun damage. UVB radiation also causes thickening of the outer layers of the skin, and if exposure is taken to excess, causes sun-burn. This should be avoided at all costs, particularly by children, due to the increased risk of skin cancer later in life.

UVA Radiation

UVA radiation is potentially the most damaging form as it penetrates deeper into the skin. In the deep basal layers of the skin UVA can damage the DNA that makes up the blueprint of each cell, and can result in mutated cells that no longer reproduce properly. This, in turn, may be a primary cause of some skin cancers, although they may take years or even decades to manifest themselves. UVA also damages structures made from or containing collagen and elastin and this is one of the main causes of wrinkles and premature ageing in skin that is often exposed to sunlight.

General Advice

The general advice given to adults who are going to be exposed to sunlight can be summed up in the now famous Australian adage of ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ – Slip on a Shirt, Slop on a Hat, Slap on some Sun-cream. Clearly, all three of these actions are designed to reduce exposure to sunlight and therefore minimise the risks involved. Further advice is to avoid exposure to the sun when it as its strongest – between mid-day and three in the afternoon. When you think about it, this is the traditional time when many Mediterranean countries have lunch followed by a Siesta – both taken indoors, thereby avoiding the worst effects of the sun.


All Sun-creams carry a Sun Protection Factor or SPF. The higher the SPF value, the longer the user will be able to stay in the sun without visibly burning.

Sun-creams earn their SPF rating by including ingredients which filter out UV radiation and reduce it’s effect on the skin. Because it is UVB that causes most of the visible adverse effects of sun exposure, most commercial sun-creams concentrate just on filtering this out and pay little attention to UVA radiation. However, it is UVA that does the most damage in the long-term and which we need protection from. Don’t be fooled that you can stay out in the sun far longer if you are using UVB radiation filtering sun-cream. Only use sun-creams that filter out both UVB and UVA radiation.

Babies and Children?

Most authorities agree that new-born babies should not be exposed to sunlight at all until they are at least 6 months old. After that age, and depending on their skin type, short periods of unprotected exposure lasting just a couple of minutes at a time may be introduced.

All other sun exposure for babies must be carefully controlled and must not be allowed to take place without some protection. Keep their skin covered with light clothing, although bear in mind that UV radiation can pass through thin, open weave materials and it is possible to burn even through a shirt or blouse. Make sure they wear a wide-rimmed sun hat at all times.Use a UVA and UVB radiation filtering sun-cream.

As with all sun-lotions, apply liberally at least 30 minutes before exposure to the sun to give the filter time to become active. Also, remember to re-apply regularly, and especially after bathing.

If you are in a hot climate, try and copy the locals and take a break in the heat of the day. Babies and children soon adapt to the idea of a Siesta and by avoiding the heat of the day they are often happier and less irritable.

As your children grow up, try and encourage them to assume some of the responsibility for ensuring they are safe in the sun. Give them their own bottle of sun-lotion and show them how and when to use it – soon it will become a habit that will protect them for the rest of their lives.

The Green People: