Sun Safety: The Parent’s Guide To Choosing and Using Sunscreen

Well, summer is here. (Not officially, but since it’s sunny and 90, I’m going to go ahead and call it.) Summertime provides opportunities for all kinds of outdoor fun, but it brings with it some significant risks as well. This is the first of a series of posts about how to keep your kids safe while enjoying the beautiful weather.

When we talk about sun protection, there are really two concerns: the immediate and painful effects of sunburn, and the long-term risk of skin cancer after a lifetime of sun exposure. I don’t think any of us wants our kids to experience the severe discomfort of a blistering sunburn, but it’s important to consider the long-term consequences as well. Skin cancer is caused by mutations in the DNA within your skin cells triggered by exposure to ultraviolet light. This happens to all of us every day, but fortunately, our cells have the capability to catch and correct most of these changes. But we’re not perfect, and our genetic proofreading mechanisms aren’t either. Over a lifetime, the chance that some of those mutations will go undetected and lead to cancer goes up significantly.

There are many risk factors for skin cancer. Having fair skin means less built-in protection from sun damage. A family history of skin cancer may indicate a decreased ability to detect and repair cancer-causing mutations. There’s not much you can do about that. But some risk factors are “modifiable,” meaning that there are things we can do to reduce our children’s risk of cancer. Seems worthwhile to me. Here are a few things that can minimize the risk of sunburn and skin cancer, while maximizing your fun at the beach or pool:

Avoid peak sun intensity

The first step to protecting your child from these harmful rays is avoiding sun exposure during the times when they are strongest—10AM to 4PM. Unfortunately, these times coincide with the times when most of us take our kids to the beach or pool. (That’s the problem with some of our recommendations; they’re just not very realistic.) But if you can choose early morning or evening times instead of midday exposure, it certainly makes a difference.

Stay in the shade

Even better than using sunscreen is staying out of the sun. Beach umbrellas and pop-up shades are great…if you can keep your kids under them. These are ideal for non-mobile infants, but if you can convince your kids to build sandcastles in the shade, that’s awesome, too.

Dress for the occasion

There’s a wide variety of protective clothing available for infants and older kids, too. In general, clothing provides better protection than sunscreen. Just make sure it’s breathable–we’re not trying to bake them. Don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat.

Remember the eyes

Another, often-forgotten risk of sun exposure is cataracts. Cataracts are like a suntan for your eyes (which isn’t great for vision, and can lead to the need for surgical correction later in life). They don’t have to be Ray-Bans, but sunglasses that offer UVA/UVB protection are a must-have for everyone.

Choose and use sunscreen wisely

Sunscreens work by absorbing or reflecting the ultraviolet radiation before it gets into the skin. There are two wavelengths of light (UVA and UVB) that can cause damage to the skin, so check the bottle to make sure you’re protecting against both. SPF-15 is the absolute minimum that you should use; SPF-30 is better. After that, the increased benefit from higher SPF ratings is pretty minimal.

Water-resistant sunscreens are essential if your kids will be playing in the water. Or sweating. Basically, anytime you’d think about using sunscreen. It can also help avoid the dreaded splash-to-the-face/sunscreen-in-my-eyes phenomenon. Remember, no sunscreen is towel-resistant, so you’ll need to reapply after toweling off.

There’s a lot of fuss about “chemicals” or “toxins” in sunscreen, but very little evidence that these cause significant harm. It’s important to keep in mind that everything is made of chemicals, including your children, and that “chemicals” are totally unavoidable and not inherently harmful. The biggest risk of using sunscreen, especially for those with sensitive skin, is a rash (which hurts less than sunburn and certainly doesn’t cause cancer). If your child has trouble with this, sunscreens that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide provide great protection with minimal skin irritation.

You may have read that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends avoiding sunscreen use in infants under 6 months…but they also recommend keeping those infants out of the sun. Realistically speaking, the risks of sun exposure are far greater than the risks of sunscreen, so if they’re going to be in the sun, sunscreen up.

In case you were wondering, there’s no real reason that you have to purchase “baby” sunscreen. And, conversely, there’s no reason you can’t use “baby” sunscreen on yourself. Sometimes, the only differences are the price and the size of the bottle–it’s all about marketing. As long as it provides the appropriate protection without irritating the skin, it really doesn’t matter.

Considering all those points, my favorite product is Blue Lizard Sensitive (no, they didn’t pay me). It’s a bit pricy, but it’s water-resistant, SPF-30, protective against UVA and UVB rays, and non-irritating. The bottle changes color to let you know that you should use it…although, if you have the bottle with you, you probably knew that already. It’s made in Australia, which obviously makes it awesome. And it’s chemical-free (whatever that means).

Remember: No matter which sunscreen you choose, it only works if you use it.

I’ll address several other common summer safety concerns in upcoming posts. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below. Thanks for reading! -Chad


As always, your comments are welcomed (even if you happen to disagree). I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Please try to keep it civil--I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

One thought on “Sun Safety: The Parent’s Guide To Choosing and Using Sunscreen

  1. Hi,

    I saw your article about Fighting Childhood Obesity in today’s Daily Herald Newspaper and it prompted me to check out your blog. Your info. is great. Thank you for speaking up for a healthier lifestyle. With your permission, I would like to share some of your thoughts in our blog (it hit 1 million hits in early May, 2015). I will also retweet this info.

Comments are closed.