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Ask the Expert: How Can I Prevent and Treat Sunburns?

We spoke to dermatologist Elizabeth C. Smith, M.D., about preventing and treating sunburns, including SPF guidelines for children, how often you should buy sunscreen, and tips for applying sunscreen properly.

Tips to prevent sunburnsWhat are the SPF guidelines for kids and adults?

Every organization has its own guidelines. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that anyone, kids and adults, wear an SPF 30 at all times. They also recommend avoiding midday sun whenever possible—try to seek shade when outdoors between 10am and 2pm. The American Academy of Dermatology also recommends that children, whenever possible, wear sun-proof clothing—UPF 50 clothing.

Sunscreen should be re-applied every two hours, assuming that one isn’t sweating a lot or swimming. Every time one is in the water or is sweating, they should reapply every 45 minutes. Sunscreen should also be purchased every year—most sunscreens are good for a year.

What are the best ways to prevent and treat sunburns?

I tell my kids that the rash guard sun shirt is part of their bathing suit because I feel like it’s much easier to provide adequate protection for the chest, back, and shoulders with a sun shirt. Then I just apply sunscreen to their face, neck, arms, and legs. I also don’t suggest using spray sunscreen. I don’t think that the sprays get on thickly enough, and I find that whenever I use spray on my kids, they’re more prone to get burns. I avoid oxybenzone in sunscreens for my kids—there is some evidence that it’s an endocrine disrupter. The FDA says it’s safe, but I like to err on the side of caution.

They other tip I would say is that you really need a lot of sunscreen to provide adequate protection, so make sure that you’re really globing it on. It should be a visible layer. For an adult, it takes about a golf-ball size amount to cover the body. For a kid, it’s probably half of a golf-ball for each application. Parents should expect to go through a lot of sunscreen in the summer because so much is needed to provide adequate protection.

If you do get sunburned, you can put on a low concentration, over-the-counter hydrocortisone to decrease inflammation. Applying any aloe or cooling agent and taking over-the-counter ibuprofen sometimes helps decrease the pain and the inflammation.

Elizabeth C. Smith, M.D., board-certified dermatologist, practices at Fairfield Dermatology located at 1305 Post Road in Fairfield, CT. She also serves as assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

Also see:

How to Be Safe in the Sun and Surf

Four Tips to Beat the Summer Heat

Outdoor Summer Safety for Kids


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