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Sunscreen for kids: Ask the expert

Gregory Plemmons, MD is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of General Pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Service to under-served and culturally diverse populations is one of his special interes...

Sun protection 101

How often does your child really need to wear sunscreen -- and which type is best? A pediatrician has some advice for you!

Girl on beach with sunscreen

The question

Should my child wear sunscreen every day in spring, summer and fall? What SPF? Is there something I should look for or avoid when purchasing sunscreen? Thanks! - Ola, New York

The pediatrician answers

Sunscreens help prevent sunburn, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer, including a particularly lethal type called malignant melanoma. Yet, most children and teenagers continue not to use sunblock.

>> Kids and sun safety: Some day they will thank me

Sunlight is divided into visible and "invisible" light. The "invisible" or ultraviolet part, is the part that causes tanning, sunburns, and, long-term, skin damage and skin cancer.

There are several ways to prevent exposure -- such as avoiding the sun during peak ultraviolet hours (10 am to 4 pm), especially in the summer, and using hats help reduce exposure. The other option available is sunscreen. Some sunscreens contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide and block ALL light. These come in fun neon colors now (in contrast to the old standard white), but their drawbacks include greasiness and a thick cosmetic appearance. Other sunscreens generally go on clear and many contain PABA, a chemical that helps absorb some of the ultraviolet light.

>> Winning sunscreen battles: Great products kids will let you apply

SPF (Sun Protection Factor) refers to the amount of time it would take to burn. For instance, if your child would normally burn within 10 minutes of exposure, an SPF of 15 would allow your child to remain in the sun about 150 minutes (10 x 15) before burning.

However, it is important to remember that SPF is somewhat dependent on your child's own skin tone. Red- or blond-haired and fair-skinned children are more likely to burn than dark-skinned individuals, and are at higher risk for melanoma. And always, proper application is required for these numbers to really come into play.

>> Less sun better than using sunscreen

A SPF of at least 15 should be adequate for most children. Pick a waterproof kind if swimming, playing in the water or sweating -- and always reapply afterwards, as well as as frequently as the label recommends.

A few of the spots frequently missed when applying sunscreen: The back of the knees, the top of the feet, the ears (including the back), the neck -- back and front, hairline/part line and your chest. A wide-brimmed hat can really help with a couple of these problem areas.

Some final reminders

  • Clouds do little to filter the ultraviolet light, so don't be deceived by a cloudy day -- the sun can still burn you as much as ever.
  • Sand and water may also reflect the sun's rays, so be sure to apply sunscreen to all those areas usually hidden -- including under your chin and on the inside of your upper arms.
  • Ultraviolet penetration is greater at higher altitudes (for any budding mountain climbers or skiiers).


More about sunscreen

Get the most out of sunscreen: Tips on using sunblock  

Sunscreen for babies | Pregnancy & Baby Blog

Many sunscreens unsafe for kids


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