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BODY WATCH : Baby Sunburns Grow Up to Become Adult Wrinkles

July 04, 1995|KATHLEEN O. RYAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's nothing quite like the silky smoothness of baby skin.

Each year countless dollars are spent on creams and cosmetics that promise to recapture the fresh dewy complexion only a baby can have. Yet nothing can reverse the damage of sun exposure that begins at Day One.

Protecting your baby's skin against sun damage is the only way to combat aging, wrinkled skin and possible skin cancer later in life.

"The radiation we're exposed to as children stays with us our entire lives," says Dr. Alfred Lane, director of pediatric dermatology at Stanford University. "In fact, 80% of the radiation a person receives from the sun in a lifetime they will get before the age of 20."

Still, parents unintentionally expose infants and young children to sun damage by spending hours at pools, beaches and other sunny spots.

Parents need to take extra precautions for babies who are immobile (generally under 6 months of age). The American Academy of Dermatology does not recommend the use of sunscreen for these little ones.

"Baby skin is brand new and much thinner than our own," says Dr. Bonnie Furner, a San Antonio dermatologist. "This makes it very sensitive and easily irritated."

The best option is to keep an infant out of the sun. When going outside, babies should wear hats; long, loose sleeves and long pants. Take your baby for walks in early morning or late afternoon and use a stroller with an awning, Furner recommends.

Once babies become mobile, sunscreen is imperative. Lane recommends using a waterproof cream or lotion with an SPF of at least 15. Don't believe that sunscreens marketed specifically for children are necessarily gentler.

"Many sunscreens and baby products are full of fragrance and drying chemicals," Furner says. "A baby's oil glands are immature. Using milder ingredients is better."

Parents may have better luck with chemical-free sunscreens containing titanium dioxide, which utilizes a tiny reflective particle to provide a physical block rather than a chemical one. Instead of creams and lotions that sting the eyes, Lane suggests using sunscreen sticks on this tender area.

Don't think darker skin eliminates your baby's risk of sunburn. While it's true that the more pigment, or melanin, in the skin the greater the protection against sun damage, Lane says dark-skinned babies should also be protected from too many rays.

What to do if a baby does become sunburned? Soothe the skin with cool-water compresses. Furner says a cool bath in diluted tea, which contains tannic acid, can help. Avoid using topical spray-on antiseptics, she says.

"Use a greasier type of lotion or moisturizer, something without preservatives or fragrance," Lane says. "I would give [children's] aspirin or Tylenol for discomfort."

If a burn results in blisters or fever, see a doctor. There are some conditions that look like sunburn but are actually more serious problems, Lane says.

"Teach your child to stay out of the sun when his shadow is short," Lane says. "Get [children] into the lifelong habit of wearing hats and sunscreen when going outside."

By establishing good sun protective practices now, you can decrease your child's chances of developing skin cancer by 78%.

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