You’re applying sunscreen wrong —here's how to protect yourself and your kids this summer

Putting it on is just the beginning

Credit: Getty Images
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While summer doesn’t technically start until June 21, the warmer temperatures and long, sunny days mean that sunscreen season is in full swing. Chances are pretty good that your pediatrician has been preaching the value of good sun protection from the get-go, but when you’re standing in the sunscreen aisle at your local drugstore, the selection can be overwhelming.

I’ve got good news for you: I went straight to the sunscreen experts to get the scoop on everything that parents need to know about protecting their kids from a future of questionable moles and prematurely-aged skin.

Yes, you absolutely need to use sunscreen

Before I launch into the nitty gritty about the dos and don’ts of kids and sunscreen, I want to address a concern that I’ve heard lately from a number of parents. Folks are considering not using sunscreen on their kids due to the recently-released findings that the chemicals from sunscreen soak into the bloodstream. I reached out to Dr. Theresa Michele, coauthor of the study and director of the FDA’s division of nonprescription drug products, to ask her, point blank, if parents should skip the sunscreen. Her most important message? “Use your sunscreen! Just because something is absorbed into the skin doesn’t mean that it’s unsafe.” Dr. Britt Craiglow, Adjunct Assistant Professor, Yale Dermatology, concurs, “It’s important to note that in this study the participants applied the sunscreens four times in a day, which is typically more than one would do in the real world.”

How to choose (and use) the right sunscreen

First of all, it’s essential to note that sunscreen is just one piece of the formula when it comes to protecting kids of all skin types from the sun. In addition to slathering your children in a broad-spectrum sunscreen that is rated SPF 15 or higher, you should also make sure they wear protective clothing, hats and sunglasses, and that you try to keep them out of the direct sun between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm.

Sunscreen Trio
Credit: Banana Boat / Blue Lizard / Elta MD

Everything you need to know about kids and sunscreen: Banana Boat Kids, Blue Lizard, Elta MD

For kids, it’s especially important to choose mineral sunscreens as opposed to chemical ones. Mineral-based sunscreens contain the active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which offer broad-spectrum protection and are less likely to be irritating. Chemical sunscreens, which contain ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone, tend to rub into the skin better but can cause rashes, especially for kids with sensitive skin.

The Dermatologists I spoke with recommended three specific brands: Banana Boat Kids, Blue Lizard, and Elta MD.

What you're (probably) doing wrong

Parents make a lot of mistakes when it comes to putting sunscreen on their kids. Some of the more common ones include not remembering to reapply sunscreen every two hours, or after swimming or sweating. Another common mistake is not using enough, or failing to take the time to really ensure that it covers every single little spot that’s exposed to the sun (think the back of the knees, the ears, and the tops of hands and feet). "You want to make sure you apply enough sunscreen to completely cover the skin – most people actually only apply about 25-50% of the proper amount. For an adult, this is about the size of a shot glass, so figure about half that for a child and a bit less for an infant or toddler”, says Dr. Craiglow.

Cream vs. Spray

The dermatologists I interviewed were in agreement that cream sunscreens are superior to sprays. With cream sunscreen you can more easily see where you’re applying it, and are therefore more apt to achieve an even distribution of sunblock. Sprays do not cover effectively unless they are sprayed on until the skin looks wet, and then rubbed in. There is also a risk of inhaling the ingredients when using spray sunscreens, and, as Dr. Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, a Kansas City-based dermatologist points out, “sunscreens are designed to go onto your skin, and not into your lungs or the lungs of other people around you.”

Also worth noting when it comes to spray sunscreen is that it can be highly flammable. Dr. Michele urges parents to check their sunscreen bottles for a “flammable” label and that if they do insist on using spray sunscreen, that they not apply it near an open fire or flame, and to wait until it dries before BBQing or cooking over a campfire.

Don’t expect sunscreen to do all the work

DIVE & SAIL Kids One Piece Long Sleeve Rash guard
Credit: DIVE & SAIL

Everything you need to know about kids and sunscreen: DIVE & SAIL Kids One Piece Long Sleeve Rash Guard

DIVE & SAIL kids one piece long sleeve rash guard

Invest in protective clothing for both your kids and yourself, especially if your family has a history of melanoma skin cancer. Wide-brimmed hats protect the face, scalp, ears and neck, and rash guards or long-sleeved bathing suits keep the sun off of shoulders and backs. “In addition to filtering out the sun, tightly woven clothing reflects heat and helps keep you feeling cool," says Latanya T. Benjamin, MD, a Society for Pediatric Dermatology board member based in Miami, Florida.

Mott 50 Mini Kelly long sleeve girls swimsuit
Credit: Mott 50

Everything you need to know about kids and sunscreen: Mott50 Mini Kelly long sleeve girls swimsuit

Mott50 girls long sleeve swimsuit
The zipper up the back makes it easy to get on and off.

Mott50 Bambini
Credit: Mott50

Everything you need to know about kids and sunscreen: Mott50 Bambini

Mott50 Bambini

J. Crew boys long sleeve rash guard
Credit: J. Crew

Everything you need to know about kids and sunscreen: J. Crew boys long sleeve rash guard

J. Crew's long sleeve rash guards

Sunday Afternoon Kids Play Hat
Credit: Sunday Afternoon

Everything you need to know about kids and sunscreen: Sunday Afternoon Kids Play Hat

Sunday Afternoon Kids Play Hats

Tips for getting kids to wear sunscreen

Convincing your kids to actually let you put sunscreen on their bodies is not always easy (we’ve all witnessed at least one pool-side tantrum). Dr. Benjamin suggests turning sunscreen application into a game. “Have fun with it and get them involved. I tell my patient families, for example, to have the child race them and rub sunscreen lotion on their belly or the tops of their feet while the parent rubs the backs of their shoulders. You, as the parent, will still have to ensure any missed spots are covered, but it’s a start.”

Dr. Craiglow suggests starting the sunscreen habit as early as possible so that kids understand that it’s part of the routine before spending time outdoors. “At my house we talk about the reasons it's important, and it has become so ingrained in my four-year-old that he actually gets upset if we don’t put it on!”

Bare Republic Neon Sunscreen Sticks
Credit: Bare Republic

Everything you need to know about kids and sunscreen: Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen Sticks

If your child is especially stubborn, try using the Bare Republic Neon Sunscreen Sticks. The package includes three different colored mineral sunscreen sticks that kids can use to “paint” their faces. Most kids are so excited to be allowed to draw on themselves that they fail to realize that they're actually putting on sunscreen. Total parenting win.

Slip! Slap! Slop!

Exposing young children to the sun can contribute to their cancer risk later in life. While the damage might not be visible until much later, protecting kids against skin cancer and early skin aging caused by the sun starts at an early age. Need an easy way to remember all the sun tips? Follow the advice of Sid the Seagull, created by Australia's Cancer Council: Slip, Slap, Slop, Seek Slide. Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on your sunglasses.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.

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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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