06/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Sun-proofing Your Child's Skin

This month marks the beginning of beach vacations, pool parties and outdoor BBQs, which means it's a crucial time to keep your child's skin protected from the sun's harmful UV rays. May's National Skin Cancer Awareness Month reminds us all to practice sun safety -- not just during the year's hottest months, but year round. A parent has good reason to engage in sun protection early on: One blistering sunburn from unprotected sun exposure as a child can possibly double the risk of melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer) later in life. And one in 55 people will be diagnosed with melanoma during their lifetime, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.

In spite of these sobering statistics, most of us -- more than 66 percent -- don't use sun protection regularly. But if we help the youngest members of the family start off on the right track, and as parents we begin to practice what we preach, our children will be more likely to make a habit out of protecting themselves. Here's how:

Protect from day one. The first line of defense for a baby younger than six months old should be proper clothing (lightweight long pants, brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts) and shade. If neither is available, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends applying sunscreen that has at least SPF 15. Sunscreen should be applied to small areas, such as baby's face or the back of baby's hands. When used correctly, sunscreen can help protect against sunburns and certain skin cancers, but it shouldn't be used as a reason to stay in the sun for long periods of time.

Choose a physical sunscreen. A young child's sensitive skin can be easily irritated by a chemical sunscreen. That's why a physical sunscreen (such as MD Moms Baby Silk Babysafe Sunscreen Towelettes) that contains pure physical block ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide offers the safest protection and reduces the risk of skin irritation. While a chemical block may take up to 20 minutes to begin working -- increasing the potential for sunburn if one heads outside too quickly -- a physical sunscreen deflects rather than absorbs UV rays and activates immediately upon application. Before using any sunscreen, however, check the expiration date. If there is no date listed and the date of purchase is in question, call the company or buy a new bottle. As a rule of thumb, if sunscreen is more than two seasons old, it's time to replenish.

Don't skimp on the sunscreen. Before slathering sunscreen on your child, test out a new brand for reactions by applying to small areas of the skin (on the extremities or torso). If your child experiences itching or redness, wash it off and discontinue use. If no irritation occurs, use one ounce (the size of a shot glass, or a palm full) for each application. (This should be 1.5 ounces for an adolescent or adult.) Apply twice to areas of the skin that wear against clothing or sweat frequently. With a chemical sunscreen, apply one layer to your child's face and body, then reapply after 20 minutes to catch any missed spots.

Pay attention to time and place. Since the most damaging UV radiation happens during the peak hours of the day -- from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- avoid sun exposure during that time or find a shady area for your children to play outdoors. Remember to apply (and reapply) sunscreen to your child, even if she's in the shade. Reapply every 3-4 hours when dry, and every 1-2 hours if swimming, wet or sweaty. Be especially diligent with your sunscreen routine when around water, sand and snow, as these reflect and intensify the sun's rays.

Don't stop at sunscreen. In addition to consistent sunscreen use, appropriate clothing is also key for optimal protection from the sun. Dress your child in clothes with UV protection (try Cabana Life's line). Also, an SPF rinse on tightly woven cotton clothing can increase the SPF value from 5 (the SPF value of an average T-shirt) to 30. Wide-brimmed hats (2.5 inches) can also help shade your child's face and ears, while sunglasses that block 99-100 percent of UV rays (with ANSI rated UVA and UVB protection) offer the best eye protection.

By taking these simple steps to protect your children's skin this summer -- and during any season -- you can make sure they enjoy the sun safely.