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Sun Safety for Young Athletes

Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute Pediatric Sports Medicine Expert Explains How to Properly Use Sunscreen to Protect Children and Teens

The first rule of sun safety is to start young.

"When it comes to kids and sun-safety habits, it’s essential to start early and to model the behaviors we want our children to useTracy Zaslow, MD throughout life," said Tracy Zaslow, MD, pediatric sports medicine specialist, Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute.

According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 increases melanoma risk by 80% and nonmelanoma skin cancer risk by 68%.

Aside from skin cancer, Zaslow says other problems that can arise with greater exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays could include aging of the skin, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Sun exposure is especially magnified for those who participate in outdoor youth team sports, Zaslow said. The risk varies based on the amount of time spent in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is the strongest, and the type of clothing worn for the specific sport.

In football, athletes typically wear long pants, short or long sleeves and a helmet, decreasing the amount of sun exposure compared to sports like swimming, water polo and beach volleyball.

Knowing What to Look For

When feasible, hats and sunglasses are helpful in sun protection. Breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics that include UV protection are available to many youth sports athletes. Covering the skin from the sun’s rays while still being able to comfortably play a sport can be a great way to enhance sun protection.

"It really comes down to whether or not a uniform covers the skin," said Zaslow. "If the uniform covers your arms, legs and the majority of your body, then you don't typically need sunscreen in those areas, but you'd still want to apply sunscreen on your face and neck that wouldn't be otherwise covered by a uniform."

When choosing a sunscreen for youth athletes, especially adolescents, choose those with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 or higher that can be easily applied. Stick-based sunscreens that are translucent when used can work well for children who need to apply their sunscreen at repeated intervals throughout the day.

While most sunscreen labels recommend applying every 80 minutes, Zaslow suggests reapplying sunscreen every hour, as it is an easier time frame to remember.

"When playing a sport, clothing tends to ride up and down at the sleeve or around the neck," said Zaslow. "I recommend applying sunscreen in the morning before an athlete puts on their uniform to make sure to get all the edges and small areas that may be missed if applied after their uniform is on, and every hour thereafter."

Common areas overlooked when applying sunscreen are:

  • Top of the head where the scalp is exposed
  • Ears
  • The hollows below the eyes
  • Lips
  • Neck
  • Tops of feet

We All Play a Role

Coaches—as well as parents—can help reduce their athletes’ exposure to the most intense UV rays by scheduling their practices for earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon when possible. This can also help reduce the risk of heat illness and dehydration, which can increase during the summer months.

"An active childhood is a setup for an active life and getting outside—whether engaged in sport or free play—is critical to childhood development," said Zaslow. "Armed with an understanding of how the sun affects youth athletes, especially those who may be at greater risk, and tips for ensuring sun protection, all kids can go outside and enjoy the sunny side of life—safer from sunburns!"


Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: 5 Fun-In-The-Sun Safety Tips for Kids