Science vs Fads: Keeping Your Kids Safe in the Sun


Which sunscreen is safest for my baby? What SPF is that t-shirt? Is this new sunscreen really better than the other hundred on the shelf? As the weather gets hotter, advertisers and bloggers begin to barrage us with the “next-best-thing” for protecting our children from the sun. Some of this advice is accurate and helpful, but there is loads of misinformation in the jungle of the internet. Over the last few weeks, I have read through a stack of research articles and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendations to get the facts straight. From all this information, I found the answers to six important questions that can help you keep your children safe without falling for fads.

1)      Can I put sunscreen on my baby? This is a question I often hear from parents. The simple answer is yes… but only if you have to. Ideally, try not to use sunscreen for babies under 6 months of age. Instead, avoid direct sunlight and dress them in hats and tight-woven clothing to protect their sensitive skin. Also, remember that 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is when UV rays are the strongest, so avoid the sun, especially at these times. If none of these options works, the AAP says it is OK to use inorganic sunscreens (such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) sparingly on exposed areas of the skin. 

2)      What type of sunscreen should I use? There are rows and rows of sunscreens at the store with a variety of claims on their labels. However, there are only a few important things to look for on the packaging. First, make sure that it is labeled “broad spectrum.” This means that it blocks both UVA and UVB rays, the two main forms of skin-damaging light. Also, use sunscreen that is at least SPF 15, and SPF 30 is probably a safer choice. In terms of ingredients, there are many different types of sunscreens. The most important thing to know about these ingredients is to avoid sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, especially in younger children. Studies have found that oxybenzone has some potential estrogen-like effects when absorbed in the body. Though very high levels are required for this effect, it is better to be safe than sorry. If you are unsure what to use for your younger children, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are always safe bets because they do not absorb into the skin.

3)      How much sunscreen should I apply? Almost everyone puts on too little sunscreen. Studies have shown that most people apply 50 to 75% too little sunscreen. As a result, they only receive 1/3 of the SPF that is advertised on the label. In other words, SPF 15 only works like SPF 10 if you apply too little. For teenagers and adults, dermatologists recommend the “teaspoon” rule: apply 1 teaspoon of sunscreen to face/head/neck, 1 teaspoon to each arm, 2 teaspoons to chest and back, and 2 teaspoons to each leg. For smaller children, apply slightly less sunscreen. But remember, it is better to apply too much than too little. Finally, remember that sunscreen loses much of its effect after 2 hours, and also after swimming or sweating. If your kids are in the sun for a long time, slather on some more sunscreen every few hours. 

4)      Do I need to buy special “UV protective” clothing? Some companies promote “UV protective clothing.” It looks just like regular clothing, but it costs double to triple the price. Are these clothes necessary? A study from a few months ago suggests not. Researchers found that “UV protective clothing” worked to block UV rays, but regular clothing worked just as well if it was made of a tight weave. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on fancy clothes to protect your child’s skin. Instead, you can put the money you save towards hats and sunglasses for even better sun protection.

5)      What if my child gets sunburnt? Despite our best efforts, at some point our kids will likely get a sunburn. After getting them out of the sun, the first step should be hydration. Give them water or 100% juice. Also, cool water and damp rags can provide temporary relief to aching skin. If they are old enough, over-the-counter pain medicine can help take the edge off. Most importantly, remember to keep them out of the sun until their skin heals, and avoid medicated creams unless instructed by your doctor. For more information about sunburns, here is a previous article by Dr. Bhaskar. 

6)      When should I call the doctor? Most sunburns get better on their own with some supportive care, but some can be serious problems. If your sunburnt child is less than one year of age, you should go to the pediatrician to be evaluated. Also call your doctor if your child develops severe blistering or pain. Serious sunburns can rarely require prescription medications or even hospitalizations. If you are worried, just call your pediatrician.

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