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How Do You Protect Kids' Skin Against the Ravages of Winter? 

Skin: It's the largest organ in the human body, and often the most abused. Parents slather their little ones with sunscreen in warm weather, but the winter's sun, wind and cold can be just as damaging and painful.

This month, Dr. Lewis First, chief of pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care, offers some simple advice that holds for adults, too: Even in the winter, cover up, moisturize and use sunscreen!

KIDS VT: What are the most common skin problems in winter?

LEWIS FIRST: Four immediately come to mind: sunburn dry skin, frost nip and frostbite from the cold itself, and windburn, which is a little different from sunburn but can result in a similar type of inflammation of the skin.

KVT: Kids can get serious sunburns in winter?

LF: Yes. One blistering sunburn, on a ski slope on a child's sensitive skin, will likely double their chances of getting skin cancer as an adult. The good news is, the use of sunscreen with a good sun protection factor can reduce that damage and the risk of skin cancer by 80 percent. Given how much the sun reflects off the snow, you need to use a sun protection factor of at least 15, and some would argue 30 or greater. And it needs to be applied at least 30 minutes before a child goes outside so it can have some effect, and then be reapplied at least every two hours.

KVT: How do you treat a child with sunburn?

LF: The best thing to do for sunburn or windburn is ease any discomfort with acetaminophen and cold compresses. And aloe vera lotion is ideal for taking the sting out of a burn and helping to reduce the inflammation. But it's much easier to prevent a burn from the sun and wind than it is to treat it.

KVT: What about dry skin?

LF: In some children it can go on to become a condition called eczema, which inflames the surface lining of the skin cells themselves. If someone is predisposed to having skin cells inflamed, the dryness in our environment air can certainly cause the inflamation to flare up and make the skin feel raw and dry.

KVT: If children's skin problems go unaddressed, can they become bigger problems later on?

LF: They might. Skin that becomes chronically irritated and inflamed can scar. In addition, when you inflame the skin you open it up and make the skin more susceptible to infection.

KVT: Any changes in the home that you can recommend?

LF: Dry air sucks moisture out of the skin. There are, therefore, several different ways to prevent that from happening. The name of the game is to try to keep the moisture inside the skin or provide more moisture to the skin. So, using a humidifier in the home is certainly a great way to provide added moisture. The other is through the use of a good moisturizer, which helps keep moisture from evaporating off the skin.

KVT: Should parents change their child's bathing habits?

LF: Children shouldn't take long baths but should take a bath long enough to keep themselves clean. After kids are done bathing, it's a great idea in the winter for parents to apply a safe and healthy moisturizer. Actually, bathing in lukewarm water is better than bathing in hot water, because hot water tends to further dry out the skin.

KVT: What chemicals in skin products should parents avoid?

LF: There are chemicals in many skin-care products that, according to some studies, can lead to problems in laboratory animals, such as an increased risk of cancer or reproductive problems in those animals. These lab findings haven't been proven to cause similar outcomes in children or in adults, one reason being the doses of these chemicals in the products we buy are incredibly small, and used much less frequently than what an animal is being exposed to in a laboratory study. But I still think it's a very good idea to talk to your pharmacist, to the health-food store, or even the department store you purchase these products from, to get a sense of what type of chemicals are used and whether there are any side effects or safety issues worth knowing about. You can also go online and understand whether they're safe for your child.

KVT: What should parents look for in skin-care products?

LF: Most moisturizers that are avilable for kids are very simple. The best ones are those that simply contain vitamin E, and aloe extract, which calms the inflammation and soothes the skin. If you use petrolatum or mineral oil, the good news is they can trap moisture in the skin. But oftentimes they can overtrap whatever is in the skin and prevent certain toxins from getting out, so they stay circulating in the body and skin longer. The name of the game is, keep your moisturizing routine simple.

KVT: What warning signs should parents watch for in the cold?

LF: If you see your kids starting to shiver, if they're feeling dizzy or weak in the cold, if they can't feel their fingers, toes, cheeks, ears or nose, then it's time to come in and warm up. That not only protects the skin, but it protects them from the effects of cold on other organs in the body.

—Ken Picard is a staff writer at Seven Days.
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