Warmer weather means we’ll be spending more time outside—and it’s very important to make sure your kid’s skin is protected. Not only are sunburns uncomfortable (and in some cases, downright painful) but getting sunburned increases your kid’s risk for developing skin cancer later in life, says Susan Poelman, a certified dermatologist in Calgary and a member of the Canadian Dermatology Association’s board of directors. “Just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence doubles their risk of getting melanoma,” she says.
The good news is there are lots of ways to protect your kid from too much sun exposure. Here’s what you need to know.
Avoid the strong sun
The best way to protect your kid from the sun is to stay out of it—especially at its peak. Poelman recommends checking the UV index to get a gauge of how strong the sun is when you’re thinking of heading out. (There are many UV index apps out there, and the UV index is also often included in the weather report.) “Low and moderate, you don’t have to worry as much, but anything high or extremely high would be a concern. It gives you a bit of a guide in terms of how quickly you burn,” she says.
Generally, though, the sun is strongest between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., so the best thing to do would be to stay indoors during that time or seek shade if you’re out and about. If you need to be out in the sun, cover up as much of your kid’s body with lightweight, long clothing and a hat, and apply sunscreen on the areas that are still exposed, like the face and the back of the hands, suggests Poelman.
It’s not recommended for babies under six months of age to wear sunscreen, however. Up until then you’ll have to protect your baby by keeping them in the shade, covering up with lightweight clothing, using stroller shades and other types of protection like sun umbrellas.
There are two main types of sunscreens, mineral and chemical. Mineral sunscreens, like Coppertone’s Pure & Simple, block the sun from getting into the skin using ingredients like zinc oxide, explains Poelman. “They deflect the sun’s rays off the skin and they’re not absorbed into it.” Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain filters that absorb the sun’s rays and then they dissipate the energy as heat into the body. “Both chemical and mineral sunscreens are safe and effective,” says Poelman, although she notes it’s generally recommended to use mineral sunscreens on smaller children because of the fact they don’t get absorbed.
When choosing a sunscreen, Poelman says to look for one that’s broad spectrum, meaning it offers protection from both UVA and UVB rays. The SPF—a measure of protection against UVB—should be at least 30, but higher is better, says Poelman.
Tips for applying sunscreen
If you’re a parent, you know that wrangling sunscreen onto tiny squirmy bodies is no easy feat. When Poelman, who is also a mom of three, would put it on her kids when they were little, she would make them a part of the process. “I used to just give them a little bit on their finger and say, ‘Let’s rub it in!’ And then we’d sing a song while we’re rubbing it or we’d make it kind of a fun event.”
Faces can be particularly challenging to apply sunscreen to—one idea is to use a cheap makeup brush or makeup sponge to spread it on. Poelman’s kids like sunscreen sticks for their faces—but the recommendation is to do four passes over the skin with the stick and then rub it in after. “So make sure you use enough of the stick,” she says. Similarly, if you’re using a sunscreen spray it needs to be applied liberally and then rubbed in (be sure to apply it downwind so they don’t inhale any particles, explains Poelman).
Keep in mind that you should be putting sunscreen on 20 minutes before you get into the sun—so plan to apply it early in your “get out the door” routine, before filling water bottles and finding shoes, for example. And be sure to follow the directions in terms of how much sunscreen to use. “A lot of people under-apply,” notes Poelman.
What to look for in protective clothing
Don’t discount the potential for clothing and swimwear to protect your kid’s skin from the sun.
“There are a lot more options available now than we’ve ever had before,” says Poelman. Look for a UPF factor of 50+ which blocks 98 percent of the sun’s rays. But even clothing without a rating can be protective, too. “Look for bright or darkly colored, tightly knit clothing to give you the best protection,” says Poelman, adding that worn out or stretched fabrics will let the rays through. “If you hold up the clothing to the light, and you can see through it, it’s not protecting your skin,” she explains.
Poelman sums up her approach to sun safety like this: “Avoiding the peak hours, wearing protective clothing and a hat and sunglasses, seeking shade, checking the UV index, and then on areas that you can’t protect with clothing, using sunscreen. I feel that’s a very safe approach.”