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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.

By Karen Robock

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

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:

Best UV-protective rash guards

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

This cute two-piece comes in an adorable print complete with a fun peplum hem, so your tot can be covered in style. $18, Carteroshkosh.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Nozone Fiji Sun Protective Baby Swimsuit

This durable Canadian-made swimsuit has a super convenient leg zipper for diaper access, and it’s designed to give 98 per cent sun protection. $40, Amazon.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

MEC Skylight Dress

This UV-coated, UPF 40 dress is a great beach cover-up for when kids are building sandcastles or playing at the splash pad. Bonus: there’s a pocket for stashing treasures while beachcombing. $29, mec.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Kawaii Ice Cream Unisex Rashguard

Sunshine and ice cream go hand in hand, so this rashguard made from recycled water bottles is a perfect summer staple for your kiddo. $38, whistleandflute.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Kawaii Ice Cream Unisex Swim Trunks

These matching swim trunks are perfect for splashing and swimming. $34, whistleandflute.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Level Six Aurora/Apollo Rashguard Onesie

This one-piece has a UPF rating of 50+, comes in three different colours and sizes up to 6T, and has special fabric treated for chlorine and saltwater resistance. $44, mec.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Cute Lemons Baby Rashguard Swimsuit

This adorable rashguard onesie for babies (in sizes 3-24 months) snaps at the inseam. The UPF 50 fabric is chlorine- and saltwater-resistant, and machine washable, so you can toss it in with the rest of the laundry after a long day at the beach. $42, Hatley.com

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Kids’ Toddler Sandy Shores™ Long Sleeve Sunguard Shirt

This Omni-Shade™ shirt is stretchy and light with fast-drying, moisture-wicking fabric that’s rated UPF 50. $35, Columbiasportswear.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Boys’ Toddler Sandy Shores™ Board Short

These practical, corodinating swim trunks provide a ton of movement with a stretchy waistband, and they come in a colourful tropical print. $35, Columbiasportswear.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

H&M Dinosaurs Swim Set UPF 50

This protective set is UPF 50 and lined at the front to shield your baby from the sun’s rays. $25, H&M.com

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Toddler Graphic Raglan Rashguard

This comfy UPF 40 crewneck rash guard comes in several fun designs that your kid will love. The long raglan sleeves provide great coverage. $25, Gapcanada.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Toddler Rashguard Swim Set

This UPF 40 suit has a front zipper, an elasticized waist and matching bathing suit bottoms, in sizes 12 months to 5T. A day at the beach with your baby or toddler has never been cuter. $29, Gapcanada.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Wheat Dilan Swim T-shirt for Infants

 This long-sleeved floral rash guard has a high neckline, so you won’t have to worry about sunburns. $35, mec.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Wheat Eli Swim Shorts for Infants

 The matching shorts are super-stretchy and feature an elastic waistband with a drawstring, so you’ll have esay access for changing that swim diaper. $29, mec.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

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?

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] 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] 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] 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

Get head-to-toe protection against UVA and UVB rays with this new take on an old favourite. The cream literally “melts” into your skin for a non-greasy finish that leaves skin feeling soft. $30, laroche-posay.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Aleva Naturals Baby Sunscreen Lotion SPF 45

The whole family can use this tube of broad spectrum sunblock that also contains skin moisturizers like coconut oil and avocado oil. $20, amazon.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Thinksport Kids Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+

This tube is one-and-done for the whole family for a day at the beach. Water resistant up to 80 minutes and gentle enough for the littlest littles. $35, well.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Green Beaver Kids Natural Mineral Sunscreen Touch Up Stick SPF 30

Made with natural and certified organic ingredients, including Canadian-grown organic raspberry, this easy-to-apply SPF 30 sunscreen stick keeps your little one’s skin safe and soft. $15, greenbeaver.com

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Vichy Ideal Soleil Lip Protection Stick SPF 30

Protect pouts big and small from UV damage and the drying effects of the sun with this nourishing balm. $15, well.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Juice Beauty SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen

A blend of rich organic jojoba and soothing aloe nourishes your skin while this water-resistant formula shields from sun damage, whether you’re on the dock or swimming in the lake. $25, sephora.com

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Beautycounter Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist SPF 30

A non-nano zinc oxide formulation that comes in a non-aerosol, air-powered canister (without the potentially harmful propellant chemicals) makes this a safer spray you can use on the whole family. $46, Beautycounter.com

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Cocoon Apothecary Reflector SPF 30 Facial Sun Protection

This mineral sunscreen will deflect damaging UV rays and nourish your complexion, thanks to the addition of sea buckthorn seed oil and shea butter. $30, cocoonapothecary.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

Consonant Skincare The Perfect Sunscreen

Toss this travel-sized tube in your airplane carry-on for your summer vacation, or just in the side of your diaper bag for on-the-go touch-ups. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide deliver reliable, worry-free protection you can use on your face, neck and hands (and baby’s too!). $16, consonantskincare.com

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

COOLA Rosiliance BB+ Cream SPF 30

Moms, you need this one just for you. It’s a tinted moisturizer and BB cream loaded with skin-nourishing ingredients and a mineral broad spectrum SPF 30, all in one. It stays put with a barely-there feel and will save you at least two skincare steps in the morning. And did we mention the delicate rose scent? $78, thedetoxmarket.ca

Summer sun protection: a guide for kids and babies

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: 15 cute summer hats for kids
5 fun and easy games that teach your kids how to swim

This article was originally published on Jun 12, 2019
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