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Q: Is it safe to use sunscreen on babies to protect them from the sun during outdoor activities?
A: With the summertime sun beating down, expect to see the lobster-red bodies of overeager sun worshippers ambling down drugstore aisles with the starched gait of C3PO, seeking relief for their painful condition.
There's more to be concerned about than just the immediate discomfort.
Skin damage from sunburn can set the stage for later skin cancer as well as premature aging and wrinkling of the skin.
So it's important to use a sunscreen and wear protective clothing whenever you spend time outdoors.
Babies are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of the sun's UV rays. It's best to keep them in shady areas when outside. The standard recommendation is to dress them in lightweight, light-colored clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and, if possible, UV-blocking sunglasses.
There has been controversy over whether to use a sunscreen on babies under 6 months old. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes it's acceptable to use small amounts of sunscreen on the exposed areas of infants.
Most sunscreen products are formulated to block both UVA and UVB, the two types of UV radiation from the sun.
Products containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide completely block both types of rays and so provide the most protection.
A step down from this complete protection are products containing chemical agents that protect against UVB as well as part of the UVA spectrum.
These are the most commonly available and cosmetically appealing products.
UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are associated with premature skin aging. UVB rays primarily affect the skin surface and are the main cause of sunburn.
Both UVA and UVB rays are thought to be linked to skin cancer.
The eyes also are susceptible to UV-induced damage. Chronic sun exposure can lead to cataracts.
Most general purpose sunglasses are designed to absorb most UVA and UVB rays (check the label for the stated percentage).
In planning outdoor activities, be aware that the sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Keep your guard up on cloudy days. Clouds block only about 20 percent of UV rays. And being in the water provides no protection at all.
Tanning beds expose you mainly to UVA rays with some UVB rays. It's generally recommended that tanning devices be avoided. If you use them, follow the suggested time limits and wear UV-blocking goggles over your eyes.
A benefit of sun exposure is that it enables the skin to produce vitamin D.
For this reason, some clinicians recommend brief periods of regular sun exposure. Others recommend meeting your vitamin D needs through supplemental sources such as vitamin D-fortified milk and vitamin supplements.
(Richard Harkness is a consultant pharmacist and specialist in natural therapies. Write him at 1224 King Henry Drive, Ocean Springs MS 39564; or email@example.com. Selected questions will be used in the column.)
(c) 2004, The Sun Herald (Biloxi, Miss.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.