Choosing The Right Sunscreen For Your Child

by Gregory Plemmons, MD What do you want to know? Come ask the experts! A selection of answers to your questions...
by Gregory Plemmons, MD

What do you want to know? Come ask the experts! A selection of answers to your questions will be regularly posted on the site. For instant gratification, click here to see what other questions have already been answered. Something not here that you want to know? Well come on -- ask your question! The question:
Should my child wear sunscreen every day in spring, summer and fall? What SPF? Is there something I should look for or avoid when purchasing sunscreen? Thanks! - Ola, New York

The pediatrician answers:

Sunscreens help prevent sunburn, premature aging of the skin, and skin cancer, including a particularly lethal type called malignant melanoma. Yet, most children and teenagers continue not to use them.

Sunlight is divided into visible and "invisible" light. The "invisible" or ultraviolet part, is the part that causes tanning, sunburns, and, long-term, skin damage and skin cancer. There are several ways to prevent exposure. Obviously avoiding the sun during peak ultraviolet hours (10 am to 4 pm), especially in the summer, and using hats help reduce exposure. The other option available is sunscreen. Some sunscreens contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide and block ALL light. These come in fun neon colors now (in contrast to the old standard white), but their drawbacks include greasiness and cosmetic appearance. Other sunscreens generally go on clear and many contain PABA, a chemical that helps absorb some of the ultraviolet light.

SPF (Sun Protection Factor) refers to the amount of time it would take to burn. For instance, if your child would normally burn within 10 minutes of exposure, an SPF of 15 would allow your child to remain in the sun about 150 minutes (10 x 15) before burning. It is important to remember that SPF is somewhat dependent on your child's own skin tone. Red- or blond-haired and fair-skinned children are more likely to burn than dark-skinned individuals, and are at higher risk for melanoma.

A SPF of at least 15 should be adequate for most children. Pick a waterproof kind if swimming, and always reapply afterwards. A few final reminders: clouds do little to filter the ultraviolet light, so don't be deceived by a cloudy day. Sand and water may also reflect rays as well. Finally, ultraviolet penetration is greater at higher altitudes (for any budding mountain climbers or skiiers).

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