Get Serious About Sun Safety

Smart Parents Need Apply

"You can buy the best sunscreen, but it won't protect you if you don't apply it properly," says pediatric dermatologist Virginia Sybert, MD, clinical professor of medical genetics at the University of Washington, in Seattle. Here's how.

  • Get an early start. Put sunscreen on all sun-exposed areas at least a half hour before going out so it has time to be absorbed into the skin. If you put it on your child before she gets dressed, you'll be less likely to miss spots.
  • Use more than you think you need. When manufacturers test a sunscreen's SPF, they're required to apply a thick layer to skin. "Most people don't use half that much," says Dr. Boiko. "Put enough sunscreen on your child's skin so that it's visibly white, like butter on a bagel, and then rub it in until it disappears."
  • Don't forget to reapply. Put on more every two hours and right after kids get out of the water -- even if your sunscreen says "waterproof" or "one application lasts all day." Surprisingly, the FDA has no approved regulations about these types of claims on labels, and most sunscreens wear off in the sun and water, especially after kids towel off. In fact, lawyers recently filed a class-action suit against several sunscreen manufacturers alleging that labels mislead consumers.
  • Remember these spots. People often overlook the ears, nape of the neck, chin, tops of the feet, backs of the hands, part in the hair, and any sparse spots on the scalp. "Little boys often wear baseball caps, but their ears stick out," says Dr. Weinkle. "I see lots of skin cancer on ears." Stick sunscreens are especially good for these areas because they don't drip.
  • Pucker up. A recent study found that 63 percent of sunscreen users don't protect their lips -- another common spot for skin cancer. Don't use petroleum jelly on your child's lips when she's going outside. It offers no protection and actually attracts more sun. Instead, use lip balm with an SPF 30, and reapply it often.
  • Don't save it for sunny summer days. The sun's reflective powers are great -- 17 percent on sand and 80 percent on snow. Even when it's cloudy, 80 percent of invisible UV rays still hit your child's skin, and they can cause surprisingly bad burns.

Fun in the Sun

Children need to get used to wearing sunscreen. It's as essential as bathing and brushing their teeth. Here's how to avoid a daily struggle.

  1. Get a kid-friendly brand. If she likes Barbie, get Barbie sunscreen or one in a pink bottle.
  2. Let him apply it himself first. Don't worry about the mess. Once he's done, you can give him a good once-over yourself.
  3. Use your imagination. Tell your child that sunscreen is special "makeup" or "paint," and write words or letters on her body (and let her do the same to you).
  4. Find the form he likes best. Experiment with foams, sport creams, gels, and no-rub sprays.

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