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How to Choose & Use Sunscreen

With all the sunscreens available these days, choosing the right one for your kids can be tricky. But what matters most when using a sunscreen is how well it protects skin from UV rays.

What Kind of Sunscreen Is Best?

When buying sunscreen, there are three important things to look for. Check the label for a sunscreen that:

  1. has an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher
  2. protects against both UVA and UVB rays (a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen)
  3. is water-resistant (protects kids while in the water for 40–80 minutes)

What Are the Different Types of Sunscreen?

There are two broad categories of sunscreen:

  • Mineral sunscreen (also called inorganic or physical sunscreen) sits on top of the skin and acts as a barrier to the sun’s rays. You may see the words zinc or titanium on the label. These can be a bit hard to rub in because they are designed to stay on the surface of the skin, so they might leave the skin a little whitish. Some even come in fun colors that kids enjoy. Mineral sunscreen starts to work as soon as it is applied, but it can come off easily with water or sweat.
  • Chemical sunscreen (also called organic sunscreen) protects the skin by absorbing the sun’s rays like a sponge. It converts the rays into heat and then releases that heat from the skin. Because it absorbs into the top layer of the skin, it doesn’t leave the whitish coating on the skin that minerals do and it doesn’t wash off as easily either. But it can take 15-30 minutes to start working.

Sunscreens are available as creams, gels, sprays, and sticks. Creams are best for dry skin areas, sticks help around the eye area, and gels are good for areas with hair (like the scalp). Sunscreen sprays can make it hard to know if you've applied enough, and there's a chance that kids could breathe in the fumes. Some sprays are also flammable, so you need to avoid sparks or flames when using it.

How, When, and Where to Use Sunscreen

For sunscreen to do its job, it must be used correctly:

  • Apply sunscreen whenever your kids will be in the sun. For best results, apply it about 15 to 30 minutes before kids go outside.
  • Don't forget about ears, hands, feet, shoulders, and behind the neck. Lift up bathing suit straps and apply sunscreen underneath them (in case the straps shift as a child moves). Protect lips with an SPF 30 lip balm.
  • Apply sunscreen generously. Dermatologists recommend using 1 ounce (enough to fill a shot glass or plastic medicine cup) to cover the exposed areas of the body. Another trick is to use the “teaspoon rule.” Use 9 teaspoons of sunscreen for the whole body: 1 teaspoon for the face and neck, 1 teaspoon for the front of the torso and 1 for the back of the torso, 1 teaspoon for each arm, and 2 teaspoons for each leg.
  • Reapply sunscreen often, about every 2 hours. Reapply after a child has been sweating or swimming.
  • Apply a water-resistant sunscreen if kids will be around water or swimming. Water reflects and intensifies the sun's rays, so kids need protection that lasts. Water-resistant sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water, and some are also sweat-resistant. But regardless of the water-resistant label, be sure to reapply sunscreen when kids come out of the water.

Don't worry about making a bottle of sunscreen last. Stock up, and throw out any sunscreen that is past its expiration date or that you have had for 3 years or longer.

Who Needs Sunscreen?

Every child needs sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that all kids — regardless of their skin tone — wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Although dark skin has more protective melanin and tans more easily than it burns, tanning is a sign of sun damage. Dark-skinned kids also can get painful sunburns.

Keep babies younger than 6 months old out of the sun. When going outside, dress your baby in lightweight clothes that cover arms and legs — and don't forget a hat with a brim. If you can't avoid the sun, you can use a small amount of sunscreen on your baby's exposed skin, like the hands and face.

Be a good role model too. Consistently wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater and limiting your sun exposure will reduce your risk of skin damage and teach your kids good sun sense.

What Else Should I Know?

  • Don't use sunscreens with PABA, which can cause skin allergies. Avoid the ingredient oxybenzone, which may have hormonal properties.
  • For sensitive skin, choose mineral sunscreen with the active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
  • Teens or preteens who want to use a self-tanner sunscreen should get one that also has UV protection (many offer little or none).
  • Some cosmetics contain sunscreen, but usually don't offer enough protection from the sun. Make sure your teen puts sunscreen on before applying makeup.

When choosing a sunscreen, just remember that the best sunscreen is the sunscreen you and your family will use every time you’re in the sun.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date Reviewed: 06-07-2021

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