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What you need to know about sunscreen and kids

Parents have many questions when it comes to the topic of kids and sunscreen. They want to know which SPF is best, how often to reapply and whether it matters if sunscreens are lotions or sprays. Parents are right to be concerned, as the majority of sun damage occurs before age 18, says Dr. Angela Folstad, a pediatrician at Lake Region Healthcare.

To spray or not to spray?

That is the question. In fact, parents have many questions when it comes to the topic of kids and sunscreen. They want to know which SPF is best, how often to reapply and whether it matters if sunscreens are lotions or sprays.

Parents are right to be concerned, as the majority of sun damage occurs before age 18, says Dr. Angela Folstad, a pediatrician at Lake Region Healthcare.

During Sun Safety Week June 1-7, Folstad helps to answer some common questions about the best ways to shield little ones from the damaging effects of sun’s ultraviolet rays.

  • Aim for 15, and reapply often. Children should always wear sunscreens with a minimum of 15 SPF. You can apply higher SPFs and the American Academy of Dermatology actually recommends a minimum of SPF 30. This can be a point of confusion for parents. For kids, Folstad says, the key is reapplying often. While their skin can usually tolerate higher SPFs, they don’t seem to offer much more protection than 15 does when applied thoroughly and often, she says. The FDA recommends buying sunscreens that offer “broad spectrum” protection, meaning they guard against all types of damage caused by sunlight. And make sure the lotions are fragrance-free and hypoallergenic to reduce risk of skin reactions.
  • Take baby steps. It’s recommended that babies under the age of six months don’t wear sunscreen, due to the delicacy of their skin, Folstad says. Infants have thinner skin and a higher surface-area to body-weight ratio than older children, which increases their exposure to the chemicals in the sunscreens – thus also increasing the risk of side effects, according to the Food and Drug Administration.  If you will be outdoors with your infant, keep them in the shade whenever possible and make sure they’re wearing a wide-brimmed hat (at least 3 inches around) and sunglasses. If no shade is available, you may rub sunscreen on the most vulnerable areas, including the nose, tops of ears and the hands.
  • Think zinc. One of the most effective barriers against damaging rays is zinc oxide, which doesn’t break down in the sun and provides an actual physical barrier against ultraviolet rays. Today’s formulations aren’t like the thick, white paste we used to see on lifeguard’s noses. Instead, zinc oxide’s large particles have been micronized to make it look less opaque and chalky. It’s also pigmented, so you can see exactly where you’ve missed, Folstad says.
  • Say ‘nay’ to spray. While spray sunscreens are convenient, they don’t seem to offer as much protection as traditional lotions do. The formulations are much thinner, which makes it harder to apply enough for adequate sun protection. Also, many spray varieties contain a glycerin component that can actually be a sun attractant, Folstad says.
  • Reapply generouslyand often. UV rays will still find their ways through clothing, so always apply sunscreen everywhere –especially during 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when sun is at its hottest. Apply enough so that you see some visible evidence of the sunscreen – such as a white sheen. Reapply every two hours, unless the child is engaged in heavy exercise or water sports. Then you should reapply a water-resistant sunscreen every 40 minutes.
  • Don’t take a winter break. “I encourage use of sunscreen 12 hours a day, 12 months a year,” Folstad says. “As long as it’s daylight – even if it’s cloudy or not warm, you are exposed to ultraviolet radiation.”
  • Take other precautions. Follow other common-sense guidelines to protect kids in the summertime, such as ensuring they are properly hydrated and making sure they occasionally take breaks in the shade.

Although most of us have been conditioned to believe a suntanned child is a picture of health, Folstad reminds us that any tan is evidence of damaged skin.  And remember to set a good example by practicing sun safety yourself.

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