Skin deep: Children’s skin is very sensitive to UV radiation and needs to be protected

It's vital parents and carers take the sun smart message on board and protect children’s skin
Skin deep: Children’s skin is very sensitive to UV radiation and needs to be protected

Sisters Isla and Pippa Finn from Navan with their mother Emma at the launch of the new SunSmart campaign.  Picture: Mark Stedman

Getting sunscreen on small children can be a tricky task – between protestations that ‘you’re tickling me’ as you try to apply it to their neck, fretting you’ve missed a spot somewhere and realising, after they’ve run out the door, you forgot to do their ears.

And yet it’s vital that parents and carers take on board the sun smart message and protect children’s skin, particularly from now until the end of September when the intensity of sunburn-producing ultraviolet radiation (UV) is greatest. Children’s skin is very sensitive to UV radiation.

“Sunburn during childhood increases the risk of getting skin cancer as an adult. If your child’s badly sunburned more than three times before the age of 20, they more than double their risk of skin cancer as an adult,” says Dr Triona McCarthy, consultant in public health medicine, HSE National Cancer Control Programme (NCCP). She refers to recent Institute of Public Health in Ireland findings that nearly 90% of 10 to 17-year-olds report they’ve experienced sunburn in their lifetime.

Skin cancer is Ireland’s most common form of cancer – over 13,000 cases are diagnosed here annually, twice the number of 10 years ago, and it’s projected to more than double again by 2045. “In dermatology, almost half the work we do refers to skin cancer – yet it’s one of the most preventable forms of cancer,” says Professor Anne-Marie Tobin, consultant dermatologist and HSE clinical lead in dermatology, who at time of interview had been doing two weeks of skin clinics where, shockingly, half the patients coming for assessment for skin cancer were sunburnt.

It’s important to educate the public that most people living in Ireland have fair skin, which burns easily and tans poorly, so they’re particularly vulnerable to UV damage and skin cancer.

The Irish Skin Foundation and Dr Sinead Field, consultant dermatologist at University Hospital Limerick, in association with NCCP, University of Limerick Hospital Group and the Healthy Ireland SunSmart campaign, have launched a series of five video animations, to encourage people to build SunSmart behaviours into their everyday routine. Messaging throughout the series highlights key skin cancer prevention behaviours and focuses primarily on four priority groups identified in the National Skin Cancer Prevention Plan 2019-2022: children and young people, outdoor workers, those participating in outdoor leisure activities and sun-bed users.

The videos encourage people to follow the SunSmart 5 S’s: Slip-on clothing that covers skin; Slop on sunscreen; Slap on wide-brimmed hat; Seek shade; Slide on sunglasses. 

View videos/learn more about being SunSmart and at the SunSmart hub

Be SunSmart – follow the 5 S’s:

  • Slip on clothing that covers skin, e.g. long sleeves, collared t-shirts
  • Slop on sunscreen on exposed areas: factor 30+ for adults, 50+ for children
  • Slap on wide-brimmed hat
  • Seek shade. Always use sunshade on child’s buggy
  • Slide on sunglasses to protect eyes


  • In Ireland, UV radiation levels are high April-September, even when cloudy. Stay safe – limit time in sun when UV’s strongest (11am-3pm).
  • Avoid deliberately trying to get a suntan – tanned skin is damaged skin. Avoid getting sunburn. Never use a sunbed.

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