A Pediatrician’s Guide on Sunscreen

Move over winter, spring is on its way! I’m sure you and your family are anxiously waiting for warmer days with more opportunities to play outdoors as much as mine is. While I encourage you and your loved ones to enjoy some much-needed sun and fresh air, I also want to remind you of the importance of protecting your child’s skin from the sun. Below, you’ll find answers to some of the most common questions regarding sun protection.

Is there a difference between sunblock and sunscreen?

Sunblock typically contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and works by blocking UV-A/ UV-B rays or scattering them. Meanwhile, sunscreen relies on chemicals to absorb the rays. Sunblock is generally better for the skin as it’s more protective, and it can also be better for the environment.

At what age can children start wearing sunscreen?

Children can begin wearing sunscreen at six months of age. I want to mention that sunscreen is not necessarily toxic prior to this age, there just aren’t enough studies recommending use prior to six months.

There are several sun safety measures you can take when going into the sun with your children under the age of six months. First, try to put your child in clothing that covers their arms and legs to prevent sun exposure. You can also choose apparel that is UV-blocking as an added measure. Next, have your baby wear a floppy hat to protect their face from UV rays, and have your baby wear sunglasses to protect their eyes from cataracts. Lastly, and most importantly, try to stay in shaded areas as much as possible! If this is not possible, use the canopy on your child’s stroller to cover them as much as possible.

What should I look for when buying sunscreen?

When choosing a sunscreen or sunblock. I recommend looking for products that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide which are typically seen in mineral-based sunscreens/sunblocks. Mineral-based products are less likely to cause a rash or irritation when applied whereas chemical sunscreens can sometimes cause a stinging sensation which deters children from wearing sunscreen.

Additionally, I tend to choose sunscreens that have an SPF of 30 or higher (for children and adults). I find that SPF 30 provides good coverage for a decent amount of time that children will be outdoors. When it comes to daily application, I tend to stay away from spray sunscreens as they are typically chemical-based; however, there are a few mineral-based spray sunscreens that can be helpful when applying over the full body if going outside to the beach, for example, and needing full body coverage.

What about insect repellent and sunscreen combination products?

As a mom, I do see the utility of dual products, but these products can be harmful to your child. While sunscreen needs to be reapplied every few hours, insect repellent does not. This can potentially lead to the toxicity of one product while trying to do your due diligence with another. For that reason, I recommend staying away from combination products as much as possible.

Can adult sunscreens be used on children?

They absolutely can! When you compare adult and children sunscreens, the only real difference is the marketing behind it. You can feel 100% comfortable with applying your adult mineral based sunscreen on your child or using your child’s sunscreen on yourself.

When should sunscreen be used?

Sunscreen should be used anytime you are going outdoors as UV rays are present throughout the day, regardless of the weather. However, the sun does have “peak hours” during which it is strongest. These hours tend to be around 10 am to 4 pm during which being in the sun should be avoided, if possible.

Sun safety guidelines provided by schools and states are great resources to check when determining the best time to be outdoors as well as safety measures that can be taken when outdoors. During these “peak hours” try to stick to covered or shaded play areas, and make sure you are reapplying sunscreen every 2 hours. In addition, you should check with your child’s school or daycare about their policies on sunscreen application. Some may ask that you apply sunscreen before coming to school and may need a note to reapply the sunscreen.

How much sunscreen should be used?

In terms of how much sunscreen you should be applying, a great rule of thumb is a shot glass of sunscreen is enough to cover your child’s entire body. You should be going through roughly two to four ounces of sunscreen if you plan on being in the sun for the majority of the day. However, if you are only applying sunscreen to your child’s face you may only need about a quarter teaspoon.

What should I do if my child gets sunburned?

If your child happens to get a sunburn while playing outside, immediately find a shaded area to protect his/her skin from further injury, if you are outdoors. In terms of treatment, there are several options. First, many parents choose to apply aloe vera to the affected areas because of its cooling effect; however, beware that there is no proven science behind applying aloe vera. I typically recommend applying topical steroids as it reduces inflammation and tends to offer a similar soothing effect. Other options include oral medications, such as Motrin, for pain control and topical emollients, such as Vaseline, to protect the skin. Most importantly, stay out of the sun until the sunburn is resolved to avoid worsening of symptoms!

One last note, if the affected area has signs of blistering, I highly advise you to seek medical attention as soon as possible!

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