Summer is upon us, and whether you’re hitting the beach, playing at the park or grilling in the backyard, outdoor activities mean lots of sun. For little ones, it also means the battle against sunscreen—that goopy, gooey gunk they’d rather avoid.
It might not be easy, but keeping your kid’s sensitive skin protected this summer means slathering it on at least every two hours when exposed to the sun, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. With that in mind, what else should parents know about sun protection?
1. Always check the clock: In layman’s terms, the sun protection factor, or SPF, allows you to extend your time in the sun by five times the SPF number, says Dr. Sheila Friedlander, a pediatric dermatologist and professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Rady Children’s Hospital. “So if I tend to burn after five minutes, if I then put on SPF 30, I can stay out in the sun for about 150 minutes.”
Keep in mind, she adds, that’s only two-and-a-half hours.
This means the higher the SPF, the longer you can stay out in the sun. But it’s still important to reapply, “especially if you’re sweating or in the water,” she adds. “We go in the water, we sweat, we touch our skin. So reapplication after two hours is the best way to protect our skin.”
2. Choose SPF 30 or higher: When deciding which SPF to choose for your children, Friedlander recommends at least SPF 30, “although higher can be a better bet,” she says. It’s also important to apply a thick layer of sunscreen. “Most people put on only a quarter or a third of what they need,” Friedlander adds. “We need to be generous in slathering it on.”
The SPF only measures protection against shallow-penetrating UVB rays, however, and Friedlander suggests using a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that offers protection against both UVB and UVA rays, the latter of which can penetrate through clothing and glass, as well as more deeply under the skin’s surface.
3. Look for broad spectrum and water-resistant: The FDA is developing a new SPF rating system that should be in effect by the end of the year. For that system, the highest SPF will be 50-plus (eliminating the SPF 75 or SPF 100 categories), and there will be a new standard for broad spectrum SPF and water-resistance labeling.
Friedlander suggests, under this new demarcation, that consumers should look for a very water-resistant 50-plus SPF with clearly marked “broad spectrum” protection.
Broad spectrum, she adds, is key. “We’re all very worried about UVB, but we know now that UVA penetrates deeper than UVB,” says Friedlander. “So the FDA is looking at a new system that sets a certain standard. You’ll need to look for the SPF number, but also look for something that’s ‘broad spectrum,’ so it’s protection from both UVA and UVB.”
4. Limit infant sun exposure: Generally, Friedlander says, most consumer sunscreens are safe. But ideally, keep infants out of the sun when they don’t need to be there. “You need to use common sense. Does a 4-month old need to be in the middle of a soccer field for two hours?” she says. “No. But if you are taking an infant out, keep them well-covered and shaded, and apply sunscreen on exposed areas, like the face and hands. The risk of any chemicals you’re putting on a child is much less than the risk of sunburn or skin cancer over time.”
Still, she adds, “It’s clear that too much UVA or UVB can lead to cancer. It’s not clear that any of these sunscreen chemicals leaves lasting damage. Don’t risk not using sunscreen.”
5. Go natural with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide: Limit sun and sunscreen for children under 6 months, but definitely use sunscreen all over for kids 6 months and older. As for the sunscreens meant specifically for babies, toddlers or tykes, “most of these just have chamomile or some moisturizing agent in them,” Friedlander explains. “Natural products are a good bet, like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. They may not be as attractive, but they’re safe.”
She suggests checking out the Environmental Working Group site for safe natural brands that use zinc or titanium dioxide as their primary ingredient, like Loving Naturals SunScreen Stick in SPF 30 or Aveeno Baby Natural Protection Mineral Block.
If using one of these natural sunscreens, she warns against the ultra-micronized ones, which are very finely ground and therefore too easily absorbed by young bodies. “Look for zinc or titanium dioxide products that are micronized, but not ultra-micronized,” says Friedlander. “It will say it right on the label. No matter what, though, it’s better to use something than nothing.”