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A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Parent putting sunscreen on boy

Keep Your Family Safe in the Sun

At this point in the summer many of us are really tired of the whole sunscreen routine. You have to grab an unwilling wiggly kid and slather them all over while trying to maintain a grip on their increasingly slippery body. They fuss. You get cranky. They’d be hard pressed to say, “Gee thanks for caring about my skin, Mom!” Nope. There’s a reason my family calls the stuff “sunscream.”

Even though it can be a pain – slathering kids with sunscreen is an important routine. Sunscreen can help prevent sunburns, skin cancer, and skin aging caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays. Young children are especially sensitive to sun exposure, and most sun damage is accrued in childhood. Parents can really make a difference for their kids’ future health by sticking to the sunscreen routine.

There is increasing concern, however, about the chemicals in sunscreens. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration acknowledges that few of the ingredients commonly found in sunscreen have been studied for safety. Only 2 ingredients – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – are recognized as safe and effective. Two others are now known to be unsafe (aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and trolamine salicylate). Another one (oxybenzone) has been shown to disturb hormone levels in children and teens. The rest of the ingredients need further study.

Given this, the FDA recently announced they’ll support more research and update regulatory requirements for sunscreens. While we wait for this, what’s a parent to do? The FDA recommends:

“Given the recognized public health benefits of sunscreen use, Americans should continue to use broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher with other sun protective measures as this important rulemaking effort moves forward.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees we should use sunscreen on our children. However, before you reach for it, here are some other ways to protect your family’s skin:

  • Avoid being outside during the strongest sunshine from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Find or create shade with umbrellas or tents.
  • Wear long sleeves, sun-protecting shirts, and hats with wide brims.
  • Use sunglasses with UV protection.
  • Use sun protection even on cloudy days – the UV rays come through the clouds.

When you use sunscreen, it should have a sun protective factor (SPF) of at least 15 – I recommend 30 or greater – and be:

  • Sweat and water resistant.
  • Applied to all exposed areas – use lots even if your child fusses at you!
  • Reapplied every 2 hours when you’re in the sun. Every 40 minutes when swimming or sweating.
  • Applied before you head outdoors. It takes 30 minutes to be effective.
  • Just sunscreen. Insect repellant-sunscreen combo lotions aren’t recommended.

Sun protection for babies

Babies under 6 months are especially sensitive to sun. Their skin isn’t mature yet and they have a higher skin-to-body ratio, which makes them more prone to the adverse effects from absorbing the chemicals in sunscreen. They’re also more likely to get dehydrated from heat exposure. For these reasons, it’s best to keep babies out of direct sun. However, if you can’t avoid sun exposure, follow these tips:

  • Dress them in lightweight but not see-through clothing that covers their arms, legs, and feet. Also, use a hat.
  • Apply sunscreen to small areas that can’t be covered by clothing like their face and back of their hands.
  • Keep them hydrated by offering them the breast or bottle more often.

Soon we hope to have a clearer understanding of which sunscreen ingredients are safe to use. Until then, keep using “sunscream” when your kids head off to have fun outdoors!

Find more resources for parents

U.S. Food and Drug Administration:
Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun

Environmental Working Group:
EWG’s 2019 Guide to Sunscreens

My Doctor Online:
Sun Protection and Sunburns

American Academy of Pediatrics:
Sun Safety and Protection Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics

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