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How to Choose & Use Sunscreen

With all the sunscreens available these days, choosing the right one for your kids can be tricky. But what matters most when using a sunscreen is how well it protects skin from UV rays.

What Kind of Sunscreen Is Best?

When buying sunscreen, there are three important things to look for. Check the label for a sunscreen that:

  1. has an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher
  2. protects against both UVA and UVB rays (a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen)
  3. is water-resistant (protects kids while in the water for 40–80 minutes)

Different Types of Sunscreen

Sunscreen comes in different types: creams, gels, sprays, and sticks. Creams are best for dry skin areas, sticks help around the eye area, and gels are good for areas with hair (like the scalp). Sunscreen sprays can make it hard to know if you've applied enough, and there's a chance that kids could breathe in the fumes. Some sprays are also flammable, so you need to avoid sparks or flames when using it.

Other Things to Know

  • Don't use sunscreens with PABA, which can cause skin allergies.
  • For sensitive skin, look for products with the active ingredient titanium dioxide.
  • Teens or preteens who want to use a self-tanner sunscreen should get one that also has UV protection (many offer little or none).
  • Some cosmetics contain sunscreen, but usually don't offer enough protection from the sun. Make sure your teen puts sunscreen on before applying makeup.

Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of the sun. When going outside, dress your baby in lightweight clothes that cover arms and legs — and don't forget a hat with a brim. If you can't avoid the sun, you can use a small amount of sunscreen on your baby's exposed skin, like the hands and face.

How, When, and Where to Use Sunscreen

For sunscreen to do its job, it must be used correctly. Be sure to:

  • Apply sunscreen whenever your kids will be in the sun. For best results, apply sunscreen about 15 to 30 minutes before kids go outside.
  • Don't forget about ears, hands, feet, shoulders, and behind the neck. Lift up bathing suit straps and apply sunscreen underneath them (in case the straps shift as a child moves). Protect lips with an SPF 30 lip balm.
  • Apply sunscreen generously — dermatologists recommend using 1 ounce (enough to fill a shot glass or plastic medicine cup) to cover the exposed areas of the body.
  • Reapply sunscreen often, about every 2 hours. Reapply after a child has been sweating or swimming.
  • Apply a water-resistant sunscreen if kids will be around water or swimming. Water reflects and intensifies the sun's rays, so kids need protection that lasts. Water-resistant sunscreens may last up to 80 minutes in the water, and some are also sweat-resistant. But regardless of the water-resistant label, be sure to reapply sunscreen when kids come out of the water.
  • Don't worry about making a bottle of sunscreen last. Stock up, and throw out any sunscreen that is past its expiration date or that you have had for 3 years or longer.

Who Needs Sunscreen?

Every child needs sun protection. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that all kids — regardless of their skin tone — wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Although dark skin has more protective melanin and tans more easily than it burns, tanning is a sign of sun damage. Dark-skinned kids also can get painful sunburns.

And remember to be a good role model. Consistently wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 or greater and limiting your sun exposure will reduce your risk of skin damage and teach your kids good sun sense.

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: October 2017

Note: All information on KidsHealth® is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.

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