Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Summer's finally here—which means it's time to think about sun safety. Here's everything you need to know about mineral and chemical sunscreens, sprays vs. lotions, UV-protective rash guards and how to keep your baby cool.

Illustration: Corina Lo

It’s summertime! That spells fun in the sun—while figuring out how to keep your kids’ skin covered, coated and shaded, whether you’re prepping for an afternoon at the park or a day at the lake. We know sun protection isn’t easy: Babies are always pulling off their hats and sunglasses, greased-up toddlers wriggle away mid–Operation Sunscreen, and big kids don’t want to come out of the water for another application.

But parents have to keep at it, say the experts. It’s estimated we absorb roughly 40 percent of our lifelong UV exposure by the time we turn 18. “Sun damage accumulated at a young age is potentially really significant,” says Jennifer Beecker, a dermatologist and research director in the Division of Dermatology at the Ottawa Hospital. Childhood sunburns have been shown to increase the risk of developing melanoma later in life.

Whether you’re applying a stick or a cream, the Canadian Dermatology Association recommends a minimum SPF 30 “broad spectrum” sunscreen (which means it protects against both UVA and UVB rays) for the whole family. If you’re playing sports or exercising, sweat-proof products will help keep lotion in place. Ditto for waterproof formulas if kids will be swimming. Even still, you’ll need to reapply after a dip (or major sweat sesh), or every two hours.

But is one sunscreen better than another? Do UV-protective rash guards really work? And how the heck do you keep a baby under six months protected from the sun when they’re too young for sunscreen? We’ve got the answers to these burning (ha!) questions.

Sun-protective clothing

Sunscreen isn’t enough, we’re sorry to say. Kids big and small can benefit from sun-protective tops and bottoms. All exposed skin, including the arms, legs, torso and head, should be covered as much as possible with a hat, sunglasses and rash guards. You don’t need to apply sunscreen under their gear, but be sure to extend your application to spots that might peek out, like under sleeve cuffs and around leg openings. If they’re in a two-piece, cover their belly, since their clothing is bound to move as they play.

Ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) is a rating given to clothing that’s designed to shield us from the sun’s rays. Some clothes are made using special fibres and a dense weave to block the sun, while other UPF clothing is pre-treated with a UV-deflecting coating. Like SPF in sunscreen, the protection number relates to how much UV the clothing filters out. A swim shirt with a UPF of 25, for example, will allow approximately 1/25 (or roughly four percent) of UV light to pass through it. This should be considered the minimum rating for kids’ clothes with UPF, says Victoria Taraska, a dermatologist at the Derm Centre in Winnipeg. “All clothing is somewhat sun protective,” she explains. Any dark-coloured tightly woven fabric can do the job. In general, polyester and nylon do very well at blocking UV. Wool and silk fibres are moderately effective, and cotton, rayon and hemp fabrics rate lower on the scale. The easiest way to tell if a regular shirt will protect well enough is to hold it up to the sun. The rule of thumb is that if you can see the light, it can reach your kid’s skin, too. And if your little one is swimming in a long-sleeved shirt, but it’s not a UPF-rated rash guard, be sure to check how it performs when it’s wet. Think of a white cotton tee: It might provide a bit of protection on the beach, but it’s useless in the water.

Check out our picks for the best (and cutest) UPF rash guards below:

OshKosh B’gosh Palm Tree 2-Piece UV Swim Shirt Set

Avoid peak sun hours

Planning family outings is hard enough when you’re trying to sync up nap schedules, pool hours and mealtimes, especially if you have multiple kids. But experts say most of your fun-in-the-sun activities should occur during off-peak hours, before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m., when the sun isn’t at its strongest. “Especially for children, the most important strategies for protection are behavioural modifications related to sun exposure,” says Beecker. “If you want to go to the park, get up early and do that first.” While you’re at the playground, stick to the shade to keep kids cool and out of the glare of the sun, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’re completely safe from those rays under a tree. “It’s better than being out in full sun, but it’s not enough on its own,” says Beecker. Kids still need to be covered to protect from the UV rays scattering and reflecting all around—even in the shade, and even in the morning hours. 

Mineral or chemical sunscreen? And which ingredients are safest for babies and toddlers?

mother's hand applies sunblock to baby girl on beach Should you worry that sunscreen ingredients could be entering your kid’s bloodstream?If you’re confused about what type of sunblock you should be buying, you’re not alone. They basically fall into two camps. Mineral, or physical, sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide to scatter and reflect UV rays. Mineral sunscreens tend to look slightly chalky because they sit on top of the skin instead of being absorbed. For a time, some brands were trying to make the mineral particles smaller so that products would have a completely sheer finish, but in recent years a concern about the environmental effects of nanoparticles has pretty much put a stop to those formulations. As a result, many mineral brands are now boasting “non-nano” on their packaging.

Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients like avobenzone or oxybenzone to absorb UV rays. According to a small study run by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and released in the Journal of the American Medical Association in May, these ingredients also absorb into the skin (and pass to breastmilk) at potentially dangerously high rates, but more thorough research is needed. In their guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that parents “may want to select a sunscreen that does not contain the ingredient oxybenzone, a sunscreen chemical that may have hormonal properties.”

All of this probably makes you wonder whether the tube of chemical sunscreen in your cupboard is OK to keep using. “[The newest study] made people think they’re unsafe products, but that’s not quite it,” says Beecker. “More study is needed, and there isn’t enough data to recommend against [these ingredients] at this time.” She points out that in the FDA study, the 24 participants “used the equivalent of two bottles of sunscreen over four days. It has been estimated the average person uses one bottle per year.”

Beecker adds that “just because a product is absorbed doesn’t mean it’s unsafe, but we certainly need more research into sunscreen safety to get more information.”

The FDA is requesting further testing on 16 ingredients currently found in chemical sunscreens to ensure these products are better understood.

Until we know more, Beecker advises that parents should go with their guts, especially if they have really young children. “In kids under three years, the skin is very thin and will absorb things very easily, so if you are concerned, use a physical [or mineral] sunscreen,” she says. Sometimes kids with sensitive complexions do better with mineral sunscreens anyway. “There’s no study to back this up, but some people find the physical sunscreens are less irritating,” says Beecker.

Sunscreen’s many forms: sprays, sticks and lotions

Once you decide on a type of sunscreen, there’s a range of formulations to choose from. Classic creams and lotions are your best bet for covering little arms, legs and torsos. It’s easy to control how much you put on—make sure you’re applying a thick layer without missing any spots. For a day at the beach in a classic swimsuit (not a rash guard), the guideline is two ounces of product (about enough to fill a shot glass) to cover an adult, so children will probably need half that much, depending on their size and whether they’re wearing long-sleeved tops or not.

Sunscreen sprays are convenient but they’re not ideal for little ones, because the particles floating in the air can be inhaled and they don’t provide reliable coverage. (When you’re spraying, it’s hard to tell exactly how much is going where.) However, many parents swear by these products because they say spraying is the only way they can get sunblock on squirmy, uncooperative kids. Beecker recommends doing a solid base layer with lotion 30 minutes before you hit the beach or pool and then reapplying with the spray later, when you’re mid-outing and it’s harder to get them to stay still for a cream or lotion. Spritz the product into your hands instead of directly on their skin, and be sure your kids are upwind when you’re spraying, so it’s not blowing into their face.

We’ve rounded up some of the best sunscreens for 2019 here:

La Roche-Posay Athelios XL Melt-in Cream SPF 50

Sunscreen sticks are great for facial coverage without any danger of getting lotion in kids’ eyes. They’re also perfect for ears, hands and even the back of the neck and the part in their hair. Plus, kids don’t seem to mind the sticks as much. “They aren’t intimidating,” says Taraska. “And they’re easy to control, so you can get into all the crevices and right up around the eyes, where kids frequently get burned.”

Although it’s nice to have a few different tubes or bottles in a range of formulations, you don’t need to tote separate products around for you and the kids. “Pretty much everyone can use everything,” says Beecker. Though if you have young children, she recommends using a kids’ mineral sunblock on everybody, just to be safe.

Weighing the risks of using sunscreen on babies under six months

If you’ve got a little one under six months of age, the sun-protection rules are a little different. Infants are too young for sunscreen, and they can overheat easily—which can make sunny outings challenging. Here’s how to keep them safe.

Mom and son going to the beach
Illustration: Corina Lo

A sunburn is worse than a little sunscreen

According to the Canadian Paediatric Society and the Canadian Dermatology Association, babies under six months shouldn’t wear any sunscreen because their delicate skin barrier is vulnerable to everything you put on it—including the ingredients in sunblock. In the case of unavoidable or unforeseen sun exposure (like if you find yourself sitting outside during a wedding ceremony, for example), Ottawa dermatologist Jennifer Beecker does recommend applying either a chemical or physical sunscreen to any exposed skin and then washing it off once you’re out of the sun. “Ultimately, we think the risks of sun exposure—and potentially a sunburn—at that age outweigh the risk of using a limited amount of sunscreen,” she says.

Try a floatie

Without sunscreen, infants need complete sun cover, which means you’ll need an umbrella, a shade tent or a baby float with an overhead attachment. But these products don’t provide full UV protection, says Victoria Taraska, a dermatologist at the Derm Centre in Winnipeg, especially if you’re using them in or near water. “For little babies in floaties, it’s important to remember that the sun can penetrate up to a metre into the water, and there’s a reflection off the surface as well,” says Taraska. “Parents should not use these as the sole sun protection measure.” A hat, sunglasses, a full-coverage swimsuit or rash guard and limited pool time are still necessary to avoid sunburns, she says. (Always stay by your baby’s side in the water, of course.)

Stroller safety

Stroller canopies and muslin blankets only provide partial sun protection, and they should be used with caution. The temperatures inside an enclosed stroller can skyrocket within minutes on a blistering summer day. If you’re draping a light blanket over the stroller or using a car seat cover, never close your baby in completely. Put your hand inside frequently to keep tabs on the temperature. Placing a damp cloth over their bare feet can help keep them cool while you stroll. “If you think they’re getting too hot, use a water-misting spray bottle,” says Beecker. She also suggests dressing your baby in a rash guard, even if they’re not going swimming. “Because it’s bathing suit material, you can just wet them down for more temperature control.”

Read more:
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