In Australia and New Zealand, we are pretty clued up on why summer sun protection is so important for our families. As the temperatures start to dip, however, it’s easy for this issue to slip from our minds. Winter sun care is something we need to think about here, especially for our babies. But why?
Isn’t the UV level much lower in winter?
Wherever you are in the world, the UV is lower in winter than in summer. But one problem we face in Australia is that we are close to the hole in the ozone. This, coupled with the fact that we benefit from low pollution in the skies, means the UV in Australia is actually higher during winter than, for example, in Europe during their wintertime.
During an Australian winter, the UV often reaches and surpasses level 3 (the threshold at which sun protection for both children and adults becomes necessary). And let’s not forget that babies under 6 months’ old shouldn't purposely be exposed to direct sunlight, even if the UV level is only 1 or 2.
OK, but why would babies be affected more than adults?
There are 3 main ways how babies cop the effects of winter sun more than we do:
1. Tilt of the pram
A quick science lesson: during our wintertime, Australia is tilted away from the sun. The UV rays are weaker than in summer largely because of the angle at which they hit the flat ground. This results in the energy of the sun’s rays being spread out over a larger area.
But angles are important in a different way too. Look what happens when an uncovered pram faces direct sunshine.
The interior of prams (and so too the babies themselves) are typically angled upwards so we, as parents, can see them easily. This means that if the pram is left uncovered against the direct sun, more radiation reaches your baby’s skin and eyes than if they were lying flat or standing up. It’s kind of like solar panels on the roof being angled to face the sun and catch as much radiation as possible.
2. Baby skin is more fragile.
Another major way that babies are affected more than adults is to do with particular vulnerabilities in their bodies, which have a triple-whammy effect on their skin.
- First they have a thinner, more absorbent outer layer of skin which hasn’t yet matured. Their skin has also not yet produced its full amount of the pigment melanin, which is the skin’s natural defence against the sun. These factors mean that UV rays can penetrate into the body more easily and reach the living skin tissues underneath, where they can cause damage to their cells.
- Second, babies’ immune systems (which are responsible for, amongst other things, fighting the development of skin tumours), are still immature. It's possible that even low doses of UV - like your baby might receive during winter - can further stifle these immune defences.
- Third, babies have a higher ratio of skin-to-bodyweight, meaning that any UV which does get through will have a more concentrated, serious effect on their smaller bodies.
Frequent exposure to sunlight in childhood are strongly related to melanoma development.
Teresa Oranges MD et al
All in all, the skin-care experts agree that babies’ skin has rather unique and fragile cell potential that needs to be protected all year round to ensure their long-term health. Sun-related skin cell changes can occur as early as the first year of life and this can trigger a cascade of reactions leading to skin cancer later on
3. Baby eyes are more vulnerable to UV exposure.
Have you ever noticed, when driving, that you need your sunglasses more in winter than in summer? That’s because the lower angle of the winter sun means the glare can enter your eyes directly.
The same goes for your baby in their pram. Babies’ eyes are especially vulnerable to UV exposure because their lenses cannot block as much UV radiation as an adult’s would. Babies have a significantly increased risk of eye damage because their eyes are more sensitive and still developing.
If you're squeezing in a family ski trip this winter, don’t forget that your baby's eyes could also suffer on the pistes. Snow can reflect around 80% of UV, almost doubling your baby’s exposure. So-called “snow blindness” is dangerous and painful for children.
So what should we do?
As adults, we might occasionally make the decision to forgo sunscreen and sun hats in winter. But as parents, we should be much more careful about sun protection for our babies. Luckily the answer is quite simple.
- Cover your baby’s pram against direct sunlight, even in the winter. This will help protect their skin and eyes from UV entering into the pram. Use a pram cover which has a UPF 50+ rating, and not a muslin or a blanket. Make sure the rating applies to the whole of the sun shade and not just a small section of it (like with some mesh covers).
- Use other forms of sun protection such as baby sun hats and sunglasses all throughout the year. Babies can be fussy about wearing hats or sunnies, but try and get them into the habit of wearing them early on.