Published on August 13, 2018

little boy with sunscreen

The ABC's of SPF

Picking out sunscreen for your family seems like it should be straightforward. However, it isn’t always so simple.

That’s easy to see with any trip to your local grocery or drug store, where you’ll see rows and rows of sunscreen boasting different claims: lotions for kids, babies, adults; sunscreen formulated for sensitive skin or specifically for the face.

“The sun can do more damage to young skin than parents often realize,” says Veronica Linares MD, FAAP and internist/pediatrician with Adventist Medical Group. “It’s important for parents to take the necessary steps to protect their child’s skin.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that just a few serious sunburns in childhood can greatly increase an individual’s risk of skin cancer. Picking the right sunscreen is just the first step in creating a layered defense against the sun’s harmful ultra-violet (UV) rays, which can cause cell damage to the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer.


“The first thing parents should look for is a sunscreen that is broad spectrum,” recommends Dr. Linares. “That will protect against UVA and UVB rays, which can cause different types of skin damage.”

Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays help the skin tan, while ultraviolet B (UVB) rays burn the skin. Neither one is healthy for the skin, so it’s important to select a sunscreen that protects against both types.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that children wear sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30.

“All children, regardless of their race and skin tone, should wear sunscreen,” says Dr. Linares. “Parents need to remember to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours and after swimming, excessive sweating or towel drying – no matter the SPF level.”

Dr. Linares also suggests parents look for a sunscreen with zinc oxide.

“Zinc oxide is a very protective sunscreen,” she says. “It acts as a barrier on the skin instead of getting absorbed into the skin like chemical-based sunscreens.”

There are two types of sunscreens: chemical and mineral based. Chemical-based sunscreens soak into the skin. Some chemicals, such as oxybenzone, have been linked to endocrine disorders, such as early puberty or infertility later in life.

“If your child has sensitive skin, you may want to test a small area of skin with the sunscreen before applying it all over the body,” Dr. Linares says. “Look for signs of itchy, redness or irritation that may signal a reaction to the sunscreen.”

Dr. Linares also says its safe to put sunscreen on babies of any age.

“The best way to protect babies from the sun is to keep them in the shade,” she says. “Have them wear light, long layers and use the sun visor attached to the stroller or car seat. Then, use a light layer of sunscreen, like a zinc oxide, to help protect against sun damage.”


Once parents have selected a sunscreen for their family, it’s important to read the directions and apply sunscreen properly. Dr. Linares reminds parents to:

  • Cover the entire body, including hard-to-reach places like the back of knees, neck and ears
  • Apply at least every two hours and after swimming, sweating or towel drying
  • Put sunscreen on 30 minutes before heading outdoors to give the lotion a chance to absorb into the skin

Dr. Linares suggests parents get into the daily habit of putting on sunscreen.

“Children and adults need sunscreen anytime they’re going to be outside,” she says. “You’ll be surprised at how quickly 20 minutes in the backyard can turn into 2 hours. Be sure to put sunscreen on anytime you head outdoors to make sure your entire family is protected from the sun.”


Sunscreen is just one layer of defense against the sun’s harmful rays. Parents can add more layers of sun protection with:

  • Sun protective clothing, which can block UVA and UVB rays
  • Hats
  • Sunglasses
  • Limited time in the sum
  • Avoiding sun at its most intense, which is typically from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m.
  • Staying in the shade whenever possible

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