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Sunscreen and beyond: How to keep kids safe in the sun

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The time to have fun in the sun has finally arrived.

But having fun in the sun doesn’t mean you and your children need to suffer from having your skin overexposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays.

The best defense against sunburn is prevention, and this includes using sunscreen, according to Dr. Samina Yousuf, MD, of OSF Medical Group – Pediatrics in Bloomington.

“Keep in mind, sunscreen is not meant to allow kids to spend more time in the sun than they would otherwise,” said Dr. Yousuf. “Try combining sunscreen with other options to prevent UV damage.”

The skinny on sunscreens

Sunscreens protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun and help prevent sunburn. Limiting time in the sun and using sunscreens can help prevent wrinkles and skin damage, such as skin cancer.

Sunscreens can absorb or deflect UV rays. They are divided into two main types:

* Organic (chemical) agents, which absorb UV light in a specific spectrum.

* Inorganic (physical) blockers, which reflect, absorb and scatter light. They are broad spectrum. These include zinc and titanium dioxide and are preferred by pediatric dermatologists.

Sunscreens are classified by the strength of their Sun Protection Factor (SPF), according to Dr. Yousuf. The SPF is calculated by comparing the amount of time needed to cause a sunburn on unprotected skin. While SPF 15 filters out 92 percent of UVB rays, an SPF 30 filters out 96 percent in general.

Selecting and using sunscreen

Sunscreens are available in many different forms including ointments, creams, gels, lotions, sprays and sticks. Consider the following when selecting and using sunscreen:

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends an SPF of 15 to 30 for children. More studies are required to test if an SPF 50 would offer extra protection.

Pick one that is waterproof, but be aware that no sunscreen is “waterproof” because all sunscreens eventually wash off. When applied correctly, waterproof sunscreen works for about 80 minutes.

Select a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Use a fragrance-free sunscreen.

Avoid the ingredient oxybenzone because it has hormonal properties, according to the AAP.

Use zinc oxide, an inorganic, broad-spectrum sunscreen that can be used as an extra protection on the nose, cheeks and ears.

Test the sunscreen on your child’s back before applying to make sure they won’t have an allergic reaction.

Apply carefully around the eyes and mouth.

Take caution when using spray sunscreen. Some spray sunscreens should never be applied to the face. Also, some of them may contain flammable ingredients and should never be applied near a source of flame.

Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun, and don’t skimp. It takes about one ounce, or two tablespoons, to cover the parts of the body exposed to the sun.

Remember to apply sunscreen to the tips of the ears, nose, feet and the back of the legs and knees. Lips can get sunburned, too, so it’s recommended to use a UV-protective lip balm and to reapply it often.

Best practice

The best defense against sunburn is prevention, Dr. Yousuf said.

“We advise families to keep their kids in the shade whenever possible and to limit sun exposure during the peak intensity hours which is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” she said. “Cotton clothing is both cool and protective. When possible, long sleeve shirts, long pants and skirts can provide protection.”


  • To wear a broad-brimmed hat to shade the cheeks, chin, ears and back of the neck.
  • Sunglasses with ultraviolet protection would be an added protection.
  • UV rays can bounce back from sand, water, or concrete; even on cloudy days, 80 percent of UV lights may reach the Earth.
  • A wet T-shirt offers much less UV protection than a dry shirt.
  • Darker colors may offer more protection than lighter colors. Some clothing certified under international standards comes with information on the UV protection factor.
  • Do not expose sunscreen containers to direct sun, heat and humidity. Wrap the containers in towels, keep them in the shade, or in a cooler.
  • Do not use sunscreens that have passed the expiration date (if there is one). Sunscreens without an expiration date should be considered expired three years after purchase. Most sunscreens are stable for three years.

Plan ahead

If the proper care of sun exposure and protection is not followed carefully, your child may become sunburned, Dr. Yousuf said. “In a child less than a year old, sunburn can be more dangerous, and that also goes for if an older child has blistering, pain or fever. Always talk to a provider if you are unsure what to do about a child’s sunburn.”

In the case of some burns, it’s important to keep your child well hydrated to replace lost fluids. Use cool water to help their skin feel better. Even a few serious sunburns can increase a child’s risk of getting skin cancer.

“You may give pain medication. For children younger than 6 months we advise acetaminophen,” she said. “For a child older than 6 months, you may use either acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Remember to keep your child out of the sun until the sunburn is fully healed.”

Dr. Yousuf said kids should be active and play outside in the sun. “But if you plan ahead, and keep sun protection handy in your child’s backpack or in your own bag, you can all enjoy the sun safely.”

Last Updated: April 22, 2022

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About Author: Lisa Coon

Lisa Coon is a Writing Coordinator for OSF HealthCare, where she has worked since August 2016.  A Peoria native, she is a graduate of Bradley University with a degree in journalism. Previously, she worked as a reporter and editor at several newspapers in Iowa and Illinois.

She lives in Groveland with her husband and son. In her free time she likes to cook, bake and read. She freely admits that reality TV is a weakness, and she lives by the quote, “The beach is good for the soul.”

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Categories: Kids & Family, Preventive Health