Nothing can ruin a summer day faster than your child developing a blistering sunburn. Poor sun protection can not only ruin one day, it can have long-term consequences, increasing the risk of skin cancer and prematurely aging skin when your child grows up.
“Skin has a lifetime memory for childhood episodes of overdoing the sun,” says Nanette Silverberg, MD, pediatric dermatologist at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. “Sun tans and burns are your skin crying out for help. Prevent those problems and your kids will not only be healthier today, they will look better and be less likely to develop skin cancer as adults.”
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If only it were that easy! Applying sunscreen to a wriggling, whining child who just wants to get to the pool or beach quickly is not most parents’ idea of fun. Here’s how you can keep your child well protected in the sun, without fighting World War III when applying sunscreen:
1. Choose a high SPF A sunscreen’s sun protection factor (SPF) is a measure of how long the product allows you to stay in the sun without getting burned compared to how long it takes you to get burned without sunscreen. If your child usually would begin to get sunburned in 10 minutes of sunlight, SPF 15 sunscreen coverage would mean that she could stay in the sun 150 minutes (10 x 15) without getting burned—but that protection assumes you apply the product correctly, give it time to absorb, and the sunscreen doesn’t come off during sweating, swimming, or rubbing. Play it safe by starting with a higher number. “It’s difficult to apply sunscreen in the thickness that is achieved in the laboratory during testing,“ says Dr. Silverberg. A higher SPF gives you a cushion; if there’s wear off due to activity you will have protection for a more extended time period.” Recently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed new sunscreen labeling rules that limit the maximum SPF on sunscreens to “50+,” because there is not sufficient data to show that products with SPFs higher than 50 provider greater protection than products with SPF 50.
2. Go for broad-spectrum High SPF is just step one in the sunscreen-choosing process. SPF reflects only a product’s ability to protect skin from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, the kind that cause sunburn, not necessarily ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, the kind that cause premature skin aging. If you see the term “broad spectrum” the product can screen out both UVA and UVB rays for more complete protection for your child.
3. Look for water-resistance The FDA’s new sunscreen labeling guidelines no longer allow manufacturers to call sunscreens “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” because these claims overstate their effectiveness. Look for products labeled “water resistant,” especially if you’re headed to the beach, pool, or anywhere that your kids are likely to get wet. Sunscreens labeled “water resistant 40” have been tested to remain effective for 40 minutes; “water resistant 80” sunscreens should last for at least 80 minutes.
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4. Go chemical-free For many sunscreens, full protection means applying the sunscreen to your child’s skin at least a half an hour before he goes outside, to allow the product to bind to the skin and the chemical protection to begin working. Chemical-free sunscreens, which contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, sit on the skin and reflect light and start working right when you apply them. “Also, chemical-free sunscreens tend to go on white initially so you can easily see where you have applied it and where you haven’t,” says Dr. Silverberg.
5. Match sunscreen to skin type Sunscreen sticks can be ideal for use on the face; easy to apply, less likely to drift into the eyes. For acne-prone teens, sunscreen gels and noncomedogenic lotions are less likely to cause breakouts than heavy creams. Avoid sprays; studies show people underapply sunscreen when they use sprays, and they can also get into the eyes or inhaled into the lungs. Also, they can be flammable—something to keep in mind if you’re grilling outdoors.
6. Protect those lips, those eyes Unlike the rest of skin, lips don’t contain the pigment melanin which offers natural protection against the sun. Make sure your children use lip balms with SPFs of 15 or higher, and let them pick out a pair of sunglasses that they will enjoy wearing, and that have a label that says they screen both UVA and UVB light.
7. Reapply The FDA recommends reapplying sunscreen at least every two hours to maintain adequate sun protection.
8. Think outside the sunscreen bottle Hate reapplying sunscreen? Sun protective clothing can keep your child safe in the sun without reapplying sunscreen. Some sun shirts are meant for swimming, too. Look for clothes that have an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of 50. “Buy them so they fit loose,” suggests Dr. Silverberg. “It’s the tight weave that provides the sun protection, and if you have to stretch the material to get it to fit, you lose some of the protectiveness of the fabric.” Do not rely on a cotton tee shirt for sun protection – especially if your child is going to swim in it. “Tee shirts provide an SPF of only about 3 or 4,” says Dr. Silverberg. Still not sure if your child’s shirt is protective enough? Hold it up to a light; if you can see through it, UV rays can penetrate through it and your child won’t be protected, according to the SCF.
9. Do it yourself One good way to get your kids to protect their skin from sun? Wear sunscreen and protective clothing yourself, avoid the sun as much as possible during the peak sun hours of the day (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), and when you are outside, seek shade.
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Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.