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Here’s What You Need to Know About Sun Exposure and Sunscreen for Kids

Here’s What You Need to Know About Sun Exposure and Sunscreen for Kids

We interviewed experts about sun exposure and sunscreen for kids. Here are the takeaways.

Did you know it only takes about 7 minutes for the receptors in your skin cells to become fully saturated with Vitamin D? Your family may be itching to get to the beach or to the pool and soak up the summer sun, especially after having spent so many months stuck at home. However, it’s important to protect you and your children from the harm the sun can cause, including greater risk for skin cancer, increased photo aging, and a variety of other rashes that can arise as a result of strong sun exposure. Here’s what the experts say you need to know about sun exposure and sunscreen for kids in order to properly protect your whole family from the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays.

Use zinc oxide sunscreen.

When it comes to sunscreen, there are two main categories: physical blocks and chemical blocks, says Kenneth T. Kircher, D.O., FAOCD, dermatologist on the medical staff of HealthAlliance Hospital in Kingston. While chemical blocks absorb the harmful UV rays from the sun, physical blocks cause those rays to bounce off of your skin. Both are useful, but Dr. Kircher recommends zinc oxide (a physical block), especially for children, because as a naturally occurring mineral, zinc is thought to be safer to use on small children. Titanium dioxide is another physical block, while everything else is a chemical block.  Dermatologist Elizabeth C. Smith, M.D. recommends using half of a golf-ball-sized glob of sunscreen for each application.

Sunscreens won’t harm you.

A study by the Food and Drug Administration shows that an amount of chemicals is absorbed through the body when chemical block sunscreens are used. However, the main chemicals in those sunscreens—avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule—are not harmful to the body. The FDA’s study was simply conducted to find out more safety data, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. The ingredients used most frequently in sunscreens in the U.S. are safe.

Some bottles print an expiration date while others do not. If there is no expiration date, then you should purchase a new bottle each year to be safe that the active ingredients, like zinc oxide, are actually working, suggests Karin Sadow, M.D., F.A.A.P.

The higher the SPF, the better.

You’ve likely heard the rumor that an SPF higher than 50 does not make a difference. While the increase in protection is quite small once you go above 50, it does make a difference. “When [a brand tests] a sunscreen, they put them on way thicker than you would wear it,” Dr. Kircher says. So, with SPF 50, you may actually only be getting an SPF of 30-35, he explains.

Limit sun exposure.

When avoiding the sun is unavoidable, wearing a rash guard in the water, a hat, SPF-protected clothing, or even a regular cotton T-shirt can protect your skin. After all, “have you ever gotten a sunburn through a shirt that wasn’t wet?” Dr. Kircher asks. Be cognizant of the amount of time your child is in the sun. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends avoiding midday sun whenever possible (between 10am-2pm).

A sunburn is an inflammatory process that will take hours to manifest, according to Dr. Kircher, so you may not see the effects of excessive sun exposure until later. Dr. Kircher recommends covering up infants younger than 6 months as much as possible using clothing. This includes sunglasses which should have a UVA/UVB blocking label. Luckily, almost all sunglasses (even cheap ones) have this protection.

You should also keep babies under six months old out of direct sunlight entirely, says Martin Belson, M.D., pediatric emergency medicine specialist. Dress babies in lightweight clothes that cover the arms and legs and use brimmed hats. Select clothes made of tightly woven fabrics, such as cotton, are cool and protective. Don’t forget sunglasses with UV protection.

RELATED: Is Melatonin Safe for Kids?

Reapplication time depends on your activity.

Sunscreens now provide a water-resistance (not water-proof) time factor on the label. If you’re wearing an 80-minute sunscreen, you should reapply every 2 hours or so. However, this is all relative to your activity. “If your child is in the waves, you will have to reapply more frequently than if they’re just walking around on a cool day,” Dr. Kircher says.

RELATED: Skin Care Products for the Whole Family

What to Do if Your Child Gets a Sunburn

Dr. Belson says you should keep your child in the shade until the sunburn has healed. To alleviate pain and heat, you can put your child in a cool (not cold) bath, or gently apply cool, wet compresses to the skin. Aloe vera gel helps relieve sunburn pain and heal skin more quickly. (Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used in conjunction with over-the-counter “after-sun” pain relievers if the pain is really intense.) Apply topical moisturizing cream to rehydrate the skin and reduce swelling and a thin layer of 1 percent Hydrocortisone cream to severely burned areas. If the sunburn is severe and blisters develop, call your doctor. Until you can see your child’s doctor, tell your child not to scratch, pop or squeeze the blisters, which can become easily infected and result in scarring.


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