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Nine in 10 parents say using sunscreen is very important for protecting their child against sunburn and skin cancer, according to a national poll on children’s health from the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor.
And the research certainly backs that up. A 2018 analysis of more than 600 Australian adults published in JAMA Dermatology found that those who regularly used sunscreen in childhood had a significantly reduced risk of melanoma later in life.
And just one blistering sunburn during childhood can almost double the lifetime risk of melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer), according to a 2008 analysis published in the journal Annals of Epidemiology.
But the poll also found that while 91 percent of parents use sunscreen on their kids, they don’t always use it correctly. Just half of parents said they reapplied sunscreen every 2 hours—the recommended interval—on their kids if they weren’t playing by the water, and just 25 percent reapply on cloudy days.
The poll didn’t look into the reasons. But as any parent—especially one with small children—knows, kids and sunscreen don’t always mix. Just getting sunscreen on them every morning can be a challenge.
“With my boys, ages 4 and 5, sunscreen application can involve lots of screaming and crying,” says Erin Rich, a mom in Oakland, Calif. “It helps now that I let them apply it to their arms while I work on the rest.”
Some of the frustration—on the part of parent and child—could stem from a lack of understanding about the importance of a daily sunscreen routine.
“You have to explain it in language they can understand,” says Yelena Wu, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist and an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “When children are young, the focus of the discussion can be on how we use sunscreen to keep skin healthy and safe, just like we use seat belts and helmets to keep our bodies safe.”
Kids are usually focused on the here and now, and as far as they’re concerned, stopping to apply sunscreen (and later reapply it) is just taking time away from outdoor fun.
Even young school-age children can understand some basics about how skin works to protect our bodies and how sunscreen works to protect skin. “You can explain that one of the things that harms skin is ultraviolet radiation that comes from the sun,” Wu says. And that the damage shows up as a sunburn or tan if you go out in the sun unprotected.
As children get older, Wu suggests making the connection between UV damage and skin cancer, explaining that good sun-protection habits are what help prevent the disease. Many parents report using their own trips to a dermatologist as teachable moments, describing how getting too much sun has led to damage and explaining that suspicious spots have to be removed. “You want to be careful to avoid scare tactics,” Wu says, but an honest dialog can help kids understand the long-term importance of protecting their skin.
Picking the Best Sun Protection
When it comes to covering up your kids, the same rules apply to them as to you. No matter your skin tone, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher to all exposed skin about 15 minutes before going outside, and reapplying at least every 2 hours or immediately after swimming or heavy sweating.
“You don’t have to use a product that says ‘kids’ or ‘baby’ on the label,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., an associate clinical professor of dermatology at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. In fact, that terminology doesn’t mean the sunscreen is any more effective than one without it. “It does need to say ‘broad spectrum’ in order to ensure the best protection from both UVA and UVB rays,” Gohara says.
Recently, the Food and Drug Administration called for more information on the safety of chemical active ingredients in sunscreen, such as avobenzone and oxybenzone. (However, the agency said it does not mean these products are unsafe.) Many “baby” formulas use only mineral active ingredients (like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) because they can be less irritating to young skin. But in Consumer Reports’ testing, these formulations have consistently received lower ratings than chemical sunscreens have received.
(If you want to use a mineral sunscreen, see below for the ones that performed best in CR’s tests. Another option is to use a sunscreen that does not contain oxybenzone, which is the chemical active ingredient that currently is most often flagged as being potentially concerning. See below for oxybenzone-free sunscreens that performed well in our tests.)
Taking advantage of different sunscreen formulations can make the job of protecting kids easier and more effective.
Most dermatologists agree that lotion does the best job covering large sections of the body. And as for sprays, CR’s safety experts are particularly concerned about the possibility that people might accidentally breathe in the ingredients, a risk that’s greatest in children, who—as any parent knows—are more likely to squirm around when they’re being sprayed. Consumer Reports doesn’t recommend using spray sunscreens on kids unless there is no other product available. If you do use a spray, spray it on your hands first, then rub it in. “It’s a great way to protect the scalp, especially the part,” Gohara says.
Sticks are ideal for specific—and often overlooked—sites such as the lips, ears, and around the eyes. “I use them around the eyes to create a sort of caulking to prevent the lotion sunscreen on the face from running into the eyes and causing irritation,” Gohara adds.
Sun-protective clothing is a great option for kids because it allows them to play in the sun for hours and apply sunscreen only to whatever skin is still exposed. Look for hats with brims that go all the way around (so that they shield the head, face, ears, and neck), rash guards, and shirts in fabrics rated with an ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF, of 50.
As with eating your vegetables and brushing your teeth, the best way to get your child to adopt a sunscreen habit is for you to be a role model by practicing smart sun-protection strategies yourself. But if your biggest problem is just getting your kids to stand still long enough to slather them up, try these tricks we collected from other parents:
Give them choices. “It’s not an option to leave the house until sunscreen’s on, but I ask my 3-year-old where he wants to be when we put it on. He always chooses a weird location—like standing on a box in the bathroom—but at least he gets to control some part of the process.”—Eileen Lambert, Boulder, Colo.
Make it fun. “When my girls were little, I’d say ‘starfish!’ and they would jump into position—arms and legs out. It made it fun and easy to move through the application quickly.”—Samantha Stout, Southport, Conn.
Be efficient. “I tell my son he has to sit still for the entire ABC song, and then I work fast.”—Deborah Rubin, Mamaroneck, N.Y.
Let them weigh in. “My daughter has had input on which sunscreens she likes and dislikes, and we’ve explored different brands together until we found one we both agreed on.”—Sandra Fraleigh, McLean, N.Y.
Make clothing count. “My son loves being outside fishing, but he hates sunscreen. So I’ve gotten him sun-protective shirts, a neck gaiter, and a wide-brimmed hat. As long as it’s ‘fishing gear,’ he’ll wear it.”—Jill Carrier, Spanish Fort, Ala.
Do sunscreens really protect as much as manufacturers claim? On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Sue Booth breaks down what you need to know to be safe from the sun’s harmful rays.
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