Be Sunscreen Savvy: Guidelines to Keep Kids Safe

Girl Sunbathing
When the weather warms up, kids are out of school and summer is in full swing, that means your children will be spending a lot more time in the sun. When you know the facts, you can teach your children how to enjoy fun in the sun without feeling the burn.

Joanna M. Burch, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology and Pediatrics at Children's Hospital Colorado, answers commonly asked questions about sunscreen and gives you the know-how to keep your children safe this season.

What should a parent look for when buying a sunscreen?

Parents should look for sunscreens that are greater than or equal to SPF (sun protection factor) 30 and products that are broad spectrum, which means they protect against both UVA and UVB rays. I prefer parents to use thick, greasy sunscreens that are water-resistant or very water-resistant (formerly waterproof) for outings to the park or pool because these products provide better and longer-lasting coverage. Parents should look at the list of active ingredients on the label. I favor products that have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in the list. These are broad spectrum sun blocks that do not sting the eyes.

What is in infant/kid sunscreen that is not in adult sunscreen?

Baby and kid sunscreens often have the same active ingredients as the adult versions, but with cuter labeling and marketing. Check your active ingredients. If they are the same, the sunscreen is the same. Your baby is not more protected with a "baby" SPF 30 sunscreen, than with a "regular" SPF 30 sunscreen if they are both water-resistant and have the same active ingredients.

Is sun block better than sunscreen?

Sun blocks are products that have titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. They physically block the sun’s rays and scatter the ultraviolet radiation (UV) upon contact. Sunscreens are chemicals that absorb the UV radiation. Sun blocks tend to block a wider range of the sun’s rays (UVA and UVB) so are better as solo ingredients. Products often combine good UVB chemical sunscreens with a physical blocker like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to provide higher SPF and broad spectrum coverage.

What does the "PA" ranking on a sunscreen label mean?

The traditional SPF ranking on most sunscreens only applies to the UVB, or the sun’s burning rays. The vast majority of the sun’s rays that make it to the Earth’s surface are longer wavelength UVA rays. UVA rays cause immune suppression in the skin, leathering, wrinkling and long-term photo damage of the skin. These wavelengths have also been shown to increase the risk of some skin cancers. Products containing active ingredients that protect against these UVA rays may have a PA (Protection against UVA) rating of PA+ , PA++ , or PA +++, and the more plus signs, the higher the protection.

Why are both UVA and UVB protection important?

UVB protection prevents sunburn. The UVA rays do not burn the skin easily (these are the rays used for tanning beds), but penetrate more deeply into the skin to cause immune suppression in the skin, leathering, wrinkling, photo damage and can cause skin cancer. For the most effective protection, both UVB and UVA should be blocked to prevent short-term and long-term damage to the skin.

Does sunscreen protect against all ultra violet (UV) rays?

Not all sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB. Check for the PA rating or the active ingredient list.

How much sunscreen should one use?

The appropriate amount is about 1 ounce, or the size of a shot glass. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours or sooner if you swim, sweat profusely or dry off with a towel. Sunscreen should be applied to skin inside (preferably before dressing in swim suit or clothing) 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure. For a day at the beach, one person should use a one-quarter to one-half of an eight ounce bottle of sunscreen.

How long does it take for sunscreen to wear off?

Water-resistant sunscreens last 40 minutes and very water-resistant or waterproof sunscreens last 80 minutes. Most people apply only half the amount that they are supposed to and not evenly over the skin. This decreases the SPF and allows uncovered areas to burn.

Here are some more tips from Dr. Burch to help protect your children from the sun:

  • Sunscreen is only that, a screen. Higher SPFs can block the vast majority of the sun’s rays, but no sunscreen blocks 100%. Sunscreen should be a part of a total sun protection program, including hats, protective clothing and avoidance of the mid-day sun when the UV rays are the strongest (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. ).
  • The UV rays of the sun are the most intense at noon , but the temperature usually peaks at 3 p.m. After 3 p.m. is a much safer time to take your kids to the pool. Seek shade and use hats and clothing to help protect young skin from the sun if you must be out during mid-day. Don’t forget that water and snow reflect UV rays, so faces and lips should be protected with sunscreen very regularly.
  • Chemical sunscreens tend to burn the eyes if they migrate in that direction. Sunscreens with only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide do not burn the eyes. My favorite is Blue Lizard Baby or Sensitive Skin formulations.
  • For more information, check out The Skin Cancer Foundation Website at