9 questions every parent has about sunscreen and hot weather

Are SPF bathing suits worth it? How long does waterproof sunscreen last? If a kid is in the shade, does she need sunscreen? We answer these questions and more.

Woman sitting on the beach with child on lap, applying sunscreen
Photo: iStock

It’s that time of year again, when parents line the sunscreen aisle and furiously search the web trying to figure out how to keep their kids safe from the sun’s dangerous rays and its powerful heat.

We asked two experts all the questions we know parents have about summertime sun safety.

What can parents do, other than apply sunscreen, to keep kids safe from the sun?

Besides sunscreen, try to minimize exposure to the sun when it’s at its strongest, which is between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., recommends Harvey Lui, a staff dermatologist at the B.C. Cancer Agency and a professor of dermatology and skin cancer at the University of British Columbia. He also suggests making an effort to seek shade when you do venture out. That might mean doing a bit of research to find parks with trees or canopies built into the play structure, and bringing umbrellas or tents to the beach.

If kids will be in the shade all day, is sunscreen still truly necessary?

According to Janice Heard, community paediatrician with the Canadian Paediatric Society Public Education Advisory Committee, you can still be exposed to UV rays even on an overcast day, and clouds aren’t a replacement for sunscreen. Similarly, neither mist nor fog block harmful sun rays. Regardless of the day’s forecast, apply sunscreen.

“Remember that sand, snow and concrete reflect up to 85 percent of UV rays and can burn unprotected skin even if in the shade, but getting reflection,” says Heard.

Sunscreen needs to be applied before kids go in the sun. How long before?

Sunscreen needs as much as 30 minutes to bind with the skin, so put it on before you leave the house. If your kids are super squirmy, don’t stress too much about rubbing it in, since Lui says it really just needs to sit on the skin in order to filter UV rays. Do apply it evenly and generously.

If kids will be swimming, they need waterproof sunscreen, right?

It’s a good idea, but even sunscreen marked “waterproof” will still wear off in the water, so it needs to be reapplied after swimming and heavy sweating.

Do SPF-rated clothes and bathing suits actually work?

Lui says SPF clothing is a great technology, but he adds that pretty much all tightly woven clothing will prevent harmful rays from penetrating. Since most swimsuit fabric is tightly woven, regular bathing suits tend to provide adequate protection on their own. But the key is the coverage, so Lui recommends kids wear rash guard bathing suits that start at the neckline, and provide coverage down to the elbows and the knees.

Look for bucket hats with a brim that’s at least as wide as the palm of your hand, and don’t forget sunglasses (ones that wrap around the head are best for kids).

Can you expose kids to too little sunlight? Isn’t vitamin D important?

Some sun exposure is needed to produce vitamin D, but that exposure should be before 11 a.m. and after 4 p.m., says Heard.

Lui says the amount of sun you get on your face and hands a few times a week is usually enough to produce the vitamin D you need. “If you really want that extra dose of Vitamin D, it’s better to get it from your food, or in tablet or drop form,” he says.

What should parents be looking for in kids’ sunscreen? Is there anything to avoid?

Heard says kids should wear minimum SPF 30, and the bottle should indicate UVA and UVB protection (look for the words “broad spectrum”).

As for whether we should be buying organic, chemical-free, scent-free products designed specifically for children, Lui, for one, believes it’s not necessary. That’s because all sunscreen sold in Canada is highly regulated by Health Canada, and is tested and reviewed, meaning that it is all safe enough to use on kids.

That said, if you’re concerned about chemicals, there are plenty of mineral sunscreens on the market. And some kids will experience skin reactions from certain formulas, whether mineral or chemical, and might need to try different brands to find one that agrees with their skin. Fragrance can be an irritant, so parents of kids with sensitive skin can choose fragrance-free formulas.

What’s the best way to protect babies from the sun?

“Babies should be in the shade with clothing covering their skin, and sunblock on exposed parts if over six months old,” says Heard, who adds that a bad sunburn in a child under one can actually be life threatening.

Babies under six months should be kept entirely in the shade in a stroller or under an umbrella.

If you’re covering a sleeping baby inside a stroller or in a bucket seat, experts recommend avoiding blankets or swaddles, as they can reduce air flow and raise the temperature inside the stroller. Try to stick to the shade, or invest in an umbrella or canopy to keep baby out of the sun.

Are dark-skinned babies better protected from the sun?

“I’ve seen skin cancer in all races, all colours,” says Lui. Fair-skinned people may be more susceptible to sun damage, he says, but nobody is resistant to the damaging effects of the sun.

Read more:
13 worst-scoring sunscreens for kids, as rated by the EWG
The biggest sunscreen myths debunked

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