As a mom and a dermatologist, I am obsessed about sun protection for my kids.
And yet, many of us mamas have fond memories of childhood days spent playing outdoors without any sun protection (eek!). We know more now: Sun exposure increases skin cancer risk, leads to premature aging and can cause painful burns and blisters on our babies’ precious skin.
Although we are more aware of the risks associated with ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure, parents are sometimes unsure of how to protect their kids from sun exposure. My patients often ask: Do kids need sunscreen everyday? What kind of sunscreen is best? Is it even safe for my child? How do I get sunscreen on my squirmy toddler? (Some problems are tough to tackle, like that testy toddler. I’m a dermatologist, not a miracle worker!)
Remember: like adult skin, children’s skin is susceptible to sun damage. Furthermore, it is actually even more sensitive, so their skin may burn more easily and just one blistering sunburn during childhood increases the risk of developing skin cancer. Therefore, children need sunscreen any time they are outside during the day, even in the winter, even on a cloudy day and even when it’s snowing or raining. The one exception to this rule is for children under the age of six months. Generally, sunscreen is not recommended in this age group and the best protection is to avoid direct sun exposure, stay in the shade and wear protective clothing. If this is not possible, then you should speak to your doctor.
Most parents know that they have to use sunscreen on their children, but they aren’t always sure about the type of sunscreen and the safety of sunscreen ingredients. I recommend a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Broad-spectrum indicates that you are getting protection against both UVA and UVB radiation, the two types of skin damaging sun rays. SPF, (sun protection factor), is an indication of protection against only UVB radiation. Reading the labels for these things is the easy part, I think the tough part is trying to figure out which sunscreen ingredients you should be using.
All the sunscreen ingre=dients approved by the FDA are considered safe and effective and supported by the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation. Generally, for kids I recommend mineral sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide). Unlike chemical sunscreens that need to be absorbed into the skin, mineral sunscreens sit on top of the skin and act as physical blockers by reflecting UV radiation. There is a risk of skin irritation and allergic reactions with chemical sunscreens; therefore, mineral sunscreens are a better choice since children have more sensitive skin. You can use one sunscreen for yourself and your children. The actual sunscreen ingredients are the same regardless of whether it is made for adults or children, but the other ingredients in children’s sunscreens tend to be gentler and less irritating.
Sunscreen should be applied 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied every two hours (or as indicated on the label) or after swimming, sweating or toweling dry. Easier said than done–I know firsthand that getting sunscreen on your child is no easy task! Luckily there are some sunscreen products that have made this application process a bit easier.
I absolutely love sunscreen sticks for the face.
Unlike lotions, they aren’t runny so no risk of getting it in the eyes and not as messy. A sunscreen stick isn’t really practical for the whole body, so you will have to find a lotion or cream that works for you. Aerosolized sprays, although easy to use, are being reviewed by the FDA for possible risk from breathing in the ingredients. Additionally, it’s tough to get even coverage with a spray. If you absolutely have to use an aerosolized spray, spray it into your hands then rub it onto your child’s skin. Approximately 1-1.5 ounces, or one shot glass full, of sunscreen is required for an entire adult body. Since kids are smaller, they typically don’t need this much but try to apply generously and evenly. My rule of thumb is at least half a handful (20 milliliters).
Lastly, sunscreen alone isn’t enough, so be sure to use protective clothing, hats, sunglasses and stay in the shade from 10 am to 3 pm, when the sun is the strongest during the day. As parents, it’s our responsibility to teach our children to adopt a sun-safe lifestyle when they are young so they have a lifetime of healthy skin.