9 Burning Questions About Sunscreen and Your Kids

Posted Travel Tips by Erin Cohen on August 6, 2014

When your kids are in and out of the pool every 15 minutes for more handfuls of Goldfish, do you really need to reapply each time? Should you spend the extra money on “baby” sunscreen? Is it okay to spray your toddler with a giant aerosol can of SPF chemicals? And if you’re wary of chemicals, can the natural brands really do the job?

Many experts agree that your 6-month-old baby isn’t even supposed to be in the sun, but you’re on vacation in tropical paradise and you know that’s not really possible or very fun. During any fun-filled vacation, protecting your kids from the sun can feel like an uphill battle.

With that said, I’m going to answer some of these questions and debunk common myths surrounding kids and sunscreen.

With thousands of sunscreens and all those fancy labels how do I know what to trust?

Recently, the FDA forced brands to change their labeling promises. So, take note of these 5 rules.

  • Brands can no longer use the word “sunblock” on a bottle. It must say “sunscreen”
  • Sunscreens with the ”broad spectrum” label protect against both skin-burning and skin-aging.
  • Only sunscreens with SPF 15 or higher can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.
  • Sunscreens can no longer claim to be “waterproof” or “sweat proof.”
  • "Water resistant” claims must specify whether it provides 40 or 80 minutes of protection.

Can my child swim for two hours before I have to reapply sunscreen, just like the bottle says?

It’s too bad, but all sunscreen will eventually wash off. According to the FDA, no sunscreen is truly “waterproof.” The “water resistant” label on your sunscreen means that it will retain its original SPF for about 40 to 80 minutes. After that, it starts to decrease in effectiveness.

However, high SPF sunscreen (50 or above) with both UVB and UVA protection will still be effective after two hours. If you’re using SPF 15 sunscreen, reapply accordingly every 40 or 80 minutes. And if you’re still going to be outside when your little one comes out of the water for good, it’s always a smart idea to apply another layer, regardless of how long it’s been. This will help make up for whatever strength was lost in the water. For more information, check out the FDA’s exhaustive sunscreen FAQ page.

I want to take my infant to the beach! Surely putting some sunscreen on my baby is better than no sunscreen. Right?

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Actually, it’s not. While the recommendation of some dermatologists to stay out of the sun entirely until your infant is six months old seems unrealistic, the unanimous warning against sunscreen use at that age exists for a very good reason. In addition to their hypersensitive skin, the Skin Cancer Foundation explains that babies at that age do not produce enough melanin to naturally protect their skin from the sun. This puts them at extremely high risk!

To avoid living in a cave for six months, dress your baby in lightweight, long sleeves, pants, and a hat. Walk them in a shaded stroller, or cover them with a lightweight blanket if you have them in a carrier. If you’re worried about your baby’s sun exposure in the car, protect them with mesh window shields or UV protection window films. When your baby reaches six months old, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you only apply sunscreen to small, hard-to-protect areas, like their hands.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Common expert advice is that the best sun protection for people of all ages is cloth, not sunscreen. Llghtweight swim shirts and long sleeves are recommended for everyone, including adults. Check out The Swim Outlet for a vast selection of sun-protection clothes for all ages.

I love using spray sunscreen for my family. It’s fast, fun, and easier to put. But is it safe?

Putting spray sunscreen on children is a hot topic of debate in the dermatological world. Those clouds of sparkly mist can create a false confidence about how much skin is actually being covered. Additionally and more importantly, the FDA is investigating the extent of risks associated with breathing in toxic sprayed chemicals. Kids are particularly likely to breathe in harmful chemicals while squirming around as they’re being sprayed. Last, spray sunscreens are flammable before they’re dry, creating an extra risk factor around cookouts or campfires.

When possible, it’s recommended to avoid all spray sunscreens. If that’s all you have, use them with caution. Spray the sunscreen onto your hands, and then rub it on — especially when applying spray sunscreen to the face. If you’re kids are near you while spraying the sunscreen onto your hands, tell them to hold their breath — maybe in preparation for swim class or as a “best monkey face” contest.

I only have adult sunscreen. Can I just use a little bit on the kids so it won’t irritate their skin?

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According to Consumer Reports, the difference between adult and kids sunscreen is usually negligible. While some kids sunscreen doesn’t include tear-causing elements if rubbed into the eyes, the actual sun-blocking effects are no different. They contain the same active ingredients in the same concentrations. The FDA does not make any distinction between the two. In general, the biggest difference between adult and kids sunscreen is that they smell different.

So while it’s preferable to use a kid’s sunscreen that won’t cause tears or offend their sense of smell, if you only have adult sunscreen around, don’t skimp on it. A sunburn is a lot more irritating than the slight chemical difference in sunscreens.

I don’t like chemicals. Can I use a natural sunscreen?

Natural sunscreens are just as effective as conventional sunscreens, as long as they are “broad spectrum.” Many conventional sunscreens contain ingredients that have received skepticism from prominent dermatologists in recent years. When shopping, look out for these hormone-disruptive chemicals: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene. Safamama.com has a helpful cheat sheet for selecting natural sunscreens.

What about the eyes? Should I make my kids wear sunglasses?

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Yes, everyone should be wearing shades! Children and adolescents don’t filter UV light as well as adults do, making them particularly susceptible to permanently damaged retinas. It can be difficult to get young kids to wear sunglasses, especially if they don’t fit or they’re not used to wearing a pair. So start them early and they’ll love ‘em.

I heard that sunscreen use actually causes higher rates of skin cancer. That can’t be! Can it?

There’s been a lot of recent studies, discussion, and investigation into this incredibly controversial topic. Studies are focusing on zinc-oxide and its potential cancer-causing side effects when exposed to sunlight. This ingredient is commonly found in all-natural brand sunscreens. Because cancerous trends among sunscreen wearers directly corresponded to people spending more time outside, researchers maintain that wearing sunscreen is still more protective against cancer than not wearing it.

I’ve also heard you can make your own sunscreen at home. What’s the secret formula?

You’ll likely put yourself and your children at a much higher risk of sun damage should you try to make your own blend. Millions of dollars go into the science of sunscreen, and “broad-spectrum” technology is still relatively new. If you’re wary of chemicals, go natural.