By Dr. Julia Gaines, MD, FAAP

After a long, cold, gray winter, it’s great to see the sun again! The kids are hitting the backyards and playgrounds anytime the weather is nice so it’s time to talk about protecting their skin from the sun. Anybody, regardless of skin color, can get a sunburn with sufficient sun exposure. We generally see many more kids with sunburns in the spring than later in the summer since we haven’t gotten back into the sunscreen habit. Unfortunately, every significant sunburn doubles your child’s chance of developing malignant melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, so let’s start gooping them up!

Parents are often overwhelmed by all the sunscreen choices out there. What should you look for? Fortunately, the FDA simplified labeling rules a few years ago, so there are really only a few important features to look for.

  • SPF (Sun Protection Factor): this is the number that indicates how much protection you can expect from that sunscreen. An SPF of 15 blocks about 93% of the sun’s rays. An SPF of 30 blocks about 97%. You can see that the super high SPFs of 50 and 70 aren’t going to give you much added protection. All children, including those with dark skin, should use at least an SPF of 15 to protect their skin. Fair skin children should use an SPF of 30 for extra protection.
  • Broad spectrum sunscreen: sunscreens block UV, or ultraviolet, light. These are the light waves that are responsible for tanning, burning, skin aging, and skin cancer. There are two types of UV light – UVA and UVB. We want to block both. Look for a sunscreen that claims to be broad spectrum or states it blocks both UVA and UVB.
  • Water resistant: no sunscreen is truly waterproof and the FDA will no longer allow a sunscreen to say that it is. Instead, it can state that it is water resistant and it must specify when you should reapply it. Obviously, it’s a good idea to use a water resistant product when swimming, but it’s also a good idea if you think your child will be sweating. Plan to reapply all products at least every 2 hours or so.
  • Ingredients: there are several active ingredients that are approved for sunscreens. The most common substances you’ll see are avobenzone, a chemical that absorbs UV light, and titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, minerals that block the UV rays. If your child has sensitive skin or gets a rash from sunscreen, look for the versions with the minerals. You should also look for PABA free products as PABA often causes a rash. Don’t worry about all the inactive ingredients – they just make the product feel and smell differently. Pay more only if you care about it.

What else do you need to know?

You should apply the sunscreen about 30 minutes before you’re heading to the beach so it has a chance to absorb. Use plenty – this is not a time to try to scrimp. Sunscreens come in a dizzying variety of forms these days – lotions, sprays, sticks, etc. Pick the one your child will let you put on with a minimum of fuss and go with it. Don’t forget the ears, nose, tops of feet, nape of the neck, and any exposed scalp (like a hair part – been there, done that). And don’t forget to reapply every few hours!

Of course, sunscreen is not the only protection out there. It’s a good idea to encourage early use of hats and sunglasses (with UV protection), even in babies. Clothing with SPF protection can add an extra layer of sun blockage although they do not provide enough protection to be used alone for any significant sun exposure. Use a lip balm with SPF to protect your child’s lips – that’s a miserable place for a sunburn!

Protect the Babies Too!

Very young infants can present a bit of a dilemma. Sunscreens are not approved for use in children less than 6 months of age, but young babies are at increased risk of sunburn due to their thinner skin. You should limit the amount of time they are in the sun and heat and use clothing and hats to help block sun exposure. If you feel a sunscreen is necessary, I would recommend a product with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and do a test on a small patch of skin first to ensure it doesn’t cause a reaction.

Worth Mentioning…

Now we’re going to take a bit of a detour and talk about tanning beds. Tanning beds are bad for you and for your kids. I don’t care what the tanning salon people tell you, there is no such thing as a “safe tan” except for a fake tan. Tanning beds produce UVA and UVB just like the sun and they can cause skin cancer just like the sun. Why would you pay someone money to give your teenager cancer? Spend that money on a spray tan instead!
Protect your family and enjoy the summer!

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