As scientists highlight the extent of DNA damage that children experience from even small amounts of sun exposure, new questions arise as to how much is too much, how optimum vitamin D levels can be achieved and how best to protect children’s delicate skin from the sun.

Just how dangerous is the sun for our children’s skin? As we enjoy an unprecedented yet welcome summer heatwave across the UK, basking in a long overdue dose of natural vitamin D production, it’s easy to forget — or overlook — the damage the sun’s rays can cause, particularly for delicate young skin.

But new research from scientists at King’s College London serves as a timely reminder. The study, published in the British Journal of Dermatology, looked at 32 children aged 10 and under at a 12-day summer camp in Poland, measuring levels of vitamin D alongside a urine biomarker of DNA damage that can lead to skin cancer, known as CPD.

At the end of the 12-day period, during which the weather was not particularly sunny, the researchers found a 25% increase in average vitamin D concentrations in the children’s blood but measured nearly 13 times more CPD on average in comparison to levels at the start. This could suggest that children are even more sensitive to the damaging effects of the sun than previously thought, or that their bodies are better at repairing the damage, the researchers concluded.

A careful balance

In light of these findings, how do parents strike a balance between the beneficial effects of the sun as our main source of vitamin D and the risks of overexposure? Since sunburn is a well-known risk factor for skin cancer in older age, there perhaps needs to be clearer warnings around the impact of ultraviolet (UV) rays on children’s skin, even when the weather isn’t sunny.

Lead researcher for the study Professor Antony Young, from the St John’s Institute of Dermatology at King’s College London, agreed “it can be a confusing message” when trying to ensure children remain healthy and produce sufficient levels of vitamin D by playing outside, , while also staying protected from the sun. “Our study suggests that only small amounts of exposure to the sun are needed to ensure vitamin D sufficiency so we should make sure that children always have ample sun protection when playing outside for long periods,” he said on the paper’s publication. “This should be in the form of sunscreen, clothing and hats and the use of shade, even when you may not judge the weather to be that sunny.”

girl with sunglasses on the beach

Smart sun safety

The NHS advises that babies and children need to have their skin protected between March and October in the UK, with infants under six months being kept out of direct sunlight completely.

Other NHS recommendations include:

  • covering exposed parts of your child’s skin with sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15 and is effective against UVA and UVB rays — even on cloudy or overcast days
  • encouraging your child to play in the shade, particularly between 11am and 3pm
  • covering your child up in loose, cotton clothes and a floppy hat with a wide brim
  • taking care to cover your child’s shoulders and the back of their neck when they’re playing, since these are the most common areas for sunburn
  • giving babies and young children aged six months to five years a daily supplement containing vitamin D

Abi Cleeve, skincare expert and managing director of sun protection brand Ultrasun, says the amount of sun cream and the timing of its application is also key to protecting children’s skin properly: “Always apply sun protection to cool, clean, dry skin in the shade 15 to 30 minutes before you or your children go into the sun. It’s important that this step is followed regardless of what sun cream brand you choose as in direct sunlight, sun cream applied to skin can evaporate before it has a chance to bond with the skin and therefore becomes less effective.

“As a rule of thumb, use a teaspoon of sunscreen for each arm, leg, front, back and face — including neck and ears,” she adds.

boy kicking beachball

And if your child is swimming, the NHS advises, a waterproof sunblock should be used and reapplied after towelling. UV protective wetsuits are also available, which enable your child’s skin to be covered and protected at the same time.

Bernadette Spofforth, managing director at children and baby swimwear specialist Splash About, says: “Although the findings of the King’s College study read as quite alarming, parents needn’t panic so long as they’re ensuring their children’s skin is properly protected from the damaging effects of UV rays, even on seemingly cloudy days.

“All the guidance is there, although there is perhaps not enough emphasis on how much more vulnerable to sun damage children’s skin is when in water. Using a high-factor, water-resistant sunblock is a must, but this protection should be reinforced with a UV-protective garment that covers the arms and legs.

“This means that, even if the sunscreen has washed or rubbed off, your child’s skin is protected,” Bernadette adds.

Although the latest research provides a timely warning, there’s no reason why families cannot enjoy this spell of good weather safely — while it lasts.