Sunscreen for kids – how often, how much to use and expiry dates

Suncream and sun protection guidelines to keep your child's skin safe

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Taking care of your child’s skin, and keeping on top of it, is SO important when exposed to the sun.

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Protecting against sunburn and skin cancer is vital, but it’s not as simple as rubbing in some suncream. There’s lots you need to consider: what other kinds of protection are out there? Am I putting enough on, often enough? Is that old bottle in the bathroom cupboard good for this year’s family holiday?

What factor sunscreen should I use on my child?

There are 2 protection elements of suncream: SPF (Sun Protection Factor) and UVA star rating. 

SPF protects against the sun’s UVB rays – which is what can cause burning and damage the skin. The UVA star rating measures the amount of UVA radiation protection.

The British Skin Foundation (BSF) says: “For children, we recommend using a sunscreen with a high SPF, like SPF50, as children’s skin is more delicate and more sensitive to burning.”

How much protection each factor really offers:

Low protection: SPF 6 and 10 – filters out 75% of UVB radiation
Medium protection: SPF 15, 20, 25 – filters out 93% of UVB radiation
High protection: SPF 30, 50 – filters out 96%-98% of UVB radiation

What is the UVA rating – and which rating is best?

In a nutshell, the sun gives out ultraviolet (UV) radiation made up of UVA, UVB and UVC.

UVC from the sun cannot penetrate the earth’s ozone layer, while UVA and UVB rays are proven to damage the skin’s DNA.

UVB is what causes skin to burn and damages cells, but UVA causes premature ageing of the skin and is linked to long-term skin damage. UVA is implicated in some skin cancers, but UVB is believed to be more harmful.

To ensure you’re being protected against UVA, check the back of the bottle (sometimes, it’ll be on the front) for the star rating. Four or 5 stars is considered the best rating, Nikki says.

How much suncream should I put on my child?

Because all children are different sizes, it’s hard to say exactly the right amount to be using. “It’s how you apply it that counts,” says Nikki Smith, Cancer Research UK’s Senior Health Information Officer.

It’s important to remember that the application is the most important thing – making sure you’re getting enough on and putting on a thick enough layer. Most people only put on half the amount they actually need. So put on a lot more than you think, and keep reapplying throughout the day.

For a little bit of context… Dr Chris Flower, a toxicologist from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, tells us that a golf ball-sized dollop is (roughly) the right amount for one application of sunscreen on mum or dad.

“This amount is likely to be too much for a small child but you must ensure there is total coverage and that nowhere is missed.”

How often should I reapply sunscreen?

Using your judgement here is key, Nikki explains.

“There’s not a set time as it depends on what you’re doing, but reapply regularly.

“That’ll also help you if you’ve missed bits the first time round. You’re not likely to miss the same bits second time around.

“Put on more than you think – and if you’re teaming it up with staying in the shade, putting it on throughout the day, and clothing, then you’ll be getting good protection.”

She also says this advice is true of suncreams that advertise themselves as requiring only a once-per-day application. “Once a day is just not a thing,” she states clearly.

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Which type of sunscreen is best for children?

There are so many types of sunscreen: thick lotion, thin, sprays, sticks, roll-ons, waterproof and sunscreen with zinc oxide in it.

But apparently, there’s none necessarily better or safer than the other – it’s all about what works best for you and your little ones.

“In terms of sun protection, it really doesn’t matter what kind of product you’re using,” Nikki explains.

“Whatever type of product it is, the application and re-application is the most important thing.”

Is there any difference between ‘chemical’ and ‘mineral’ sunscreens?

There is a difference, however, between usual ‘chemical’ sunscreens and the ‘mineral’ ones which contain the zinc oxide.

Mineral, also known as ‘physical’, sunscreens act as a protective ‘barrier’ on top of skin, and spring into action the minute you put them on.

These are usually the thick, white suncreams that are obvious on your skin. Zinc also has some anti-inflammatory, healing properties, it’s been said.

Chemical ones actually absorb into the skin and need to be applied 20 mins before you head out into the sun.

You should be able to tell which kind you’re picking up from the shops by reading the label on the bottle – but like we said, there isn’t a winner, they’re just different.

How long does suncream take to dry/be fully absorbed?

“There’s not a set time frame,” Nikki notes. “The way [many] sunscreens work is not like a moisturiser, as it doesn’t sink into the skin.

“It sits on the skin which is why it sometimes can still look a bit white when you put it on. You just have to be careful with getting it on your clothes.”

Some ‘chemical’ sunscreens, however, say wait around 20 minutes after applying before going outside. You should be able to tell which kind you have by looking at the back of the bottle.

Always read the instructions, too, just to be sure.

Does suncream go out of date?

Yes – it does!

Usually it will last anywhere from 1 – 3 years, and this info can be found somewhere on the box or the bottle.

If you know you’ve had it for aaaaages but can’t find an expiry date, it’s probs best to buy a new one just to be on the safe side ?

Celeb mum and Nivea/Cancer Research UK spokesperson Una Healy, of The Saturdays fame, shared with MadeForMums a story about a recent sell-by date mishap…

“When I was going to Malta, I had a 2-year-old bottle of factor 30 and I was thinking well, I’ll bring that along, take it down to the beach… but because it had been opened 2 years ago it had lost it’s effect.

“I got burned, like a lobster effect. I got into the lift and everyone’s laughing at me, wasn’t so funny with the pain though.

“Look at the guidelines on the back – when it says it expires in 12 months, it means 12 months!”

sunscreen

If my child has eczema, or sensitive skin – what sunscreen should I use?

Hmmm… we’d say it really depends on your child’s specific condition or sensitivity.

Cancer Research UK’s Senior Health Information Officer Nikki Smith says you’re best off consulting your medical professional (like your GP) or a pharmacist on that one – so they can advise you and what’s best for your little one.

However, Dr Sandeep H Cliff, Consultant Dermatologist and Surgeon, says that “if your child has sensitive skin or suffers from eczema, then use a hypoallergenic preparation [before exposure to UV rays]”.

As the NHS added, while adult and children sunscreens may not differ in terms of what the SPF means, children and baby sunscreens are often formulated to be less likely to irritate their skin.

Which sunscreen type is best for dark skin?

Nikki says that they advise everyone with the same principles for skincare in the sun – but that those with darker skin are at less risk of developing skin cancer than those who are pale.

“People with darker skin types won’t need to be as careful. If you have a very dark skin type, you very rarely need to protect yourself in the UK. You won’t need to take care as often as people with paler skin.

“The UV index, which measures the strength of the sun, would need to be at the very, very top of the range for you to be at risk of skin cancer.”

Therefore, any reputable suncream will be suitable for your little one.

Do I need to use sunscreen when it’s cloudy?

In a word: yes!

“Basically, if you can see the sun then there’ll be a UV rating. You can usually find this out from the Met Office,” says Nikki.

“It has to be very cloudy for the UV rating to not reach the Earth.

“The clouds don’t filter UV and UV can also bounce off clouds and be reflected onto the ground – so on a day with UV rating of 3 or more, it’s important to think about suncream.”

Can my child get sunburnt through a car window?

This is something we’ve always been concerned about… so we’re pleased to hear that your child CAN’T get sunburnt through a car window.

One less thing to worry about on your next long-haul car journey, eh?

The reason for that is that glass filters out UVB, the rays responsible for sunburn.

“Some UVA can get through glass, and that can also cause damage even if you’re not necessarily seeing it,” Nikki says.

But the risk is so small, that only those who are constantly in their cars (like lorry drivers, for example) need to think about protecting themselves with a long-sleeve shirt and a hat.

Chances are your little one will be kitted out with the right clothes if you are getting in the car before an outing on a sunny day, regardless…

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Is it safe to put sunscreen on kids’ faces and hands – what if it gets in their mouths?

Yes, it’s OK to pop it anywhere, and whether or not it would react with their tummy in the event of it ending up in their mouths really depends on each individual situation.

Though just because it’s OK, doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes damn near impossible.

Una Healy can relate, revealing to MFM that her son, 2-year-old Tadhg, is a nightmare for getting sunscreen on.

“Tadhg literally doesn’t like me doing anything to his face – he’s like the most unvain baby ever. He hates having his hair done, hates having his nails cut, doesn’t like anything like that so we’re struggling with all that at the minute,” she admits.

But she’s got a simple solution for getting sunscreen on her wriggly toddler – the art of distraction.

“I find it’s good to distract him. I often put him in his little highchair and turn on a cartoon then I pretend I’m tickling him, he loves being tickled you see, he’ll go ‘tickle me!’ and then I pretend it’s part of the tickling routine.

“He hates wearing a hat, too. He won’t wear one, so I have to be extra careful with keeping him in the shade. Luckily, he’s got a massive crop of hair – he’s looking a bit like Liam Gallagher at the minute. It’ll need a chop eventually, though!”

If my child always wears sunscreen in the sun, can this lead to Vitamin D deficiency?

“This is a really common concern – and it is an issue if kids aren’t spending time in the sun. We definitely aren’t suggesting spending no time in the sun entirely, but you only need a very small amount of sun exposure to generate Vitamin D,” Nikki tells us –  far less than would cause your skin to burn.

“So just the short, casual, exposure you get from your day is enough exposure for most people to get Vitamin D, even in the UK, and in the summer.

Nikki also says people with darker skin, who are less at risk of skin cancer, should spend a tiny bit more time in the sun than those with paler skin – and that everyone should keep on top of their little one’s recommended Vitamin D supplements if they’re under the age of 5.

Sunscreen at school: make sure your child knows how to apply it

Some nurseries and schools will reapply sunscreen at lunchtime if they have your written permission to do so, but not all. Ask your school or nursery to make sure you know what their policy is.

Ideally, you want to make your child knows how to reapply it themselves so they can top up before hitting the playground.

Pop star and mum of 2 Una Healy’s plan to tackle this was to make sure 5-year-old daughter, Aoife, understood the importance of putting it on herself.

“It’s about getting into a routine… getting them to understand why,” Una tells MFM.

“I get Aoife done for school, pile the sunscreen all over her face her arms, her legs, and then pop it in her school bag.”

“She’s very aware of the heat – as soon as we get into the car and it’s quite hot she’ll say: ‘Mummy I’m boiling! I’m boiling!’

“She doesn’t really like extreme temperatures, but she understands that when it’s very hot you can burn… and that that’s bad.”

How can I teach my child to understand sun safety?

“When you’re an adult, you know the protection’s most needed in the middle of the day, but kids won’t really think about it that way and they might not know what the time is, either,” says Nikki.

So, when your little one’s old enough, you can try teaching them to follow The Shadow Rule:

“As the sun rises and sets, and your shadow looks really long, you’re safe to play outside, but in the middle of the day, when the sun’s directly above us and our shadows are really short, that’s when you need to take care and make sure you’re protected.

“It’s really simple once your child gets it, and they learn about shadows and sundials once they’re at school so it fits in with other things that they might know about. They’re surprisingly astute!”

Here’s an infographic that might help…

shadow rule

What’s the difference between sunblock and sunscreen/suncream? When should I use sunblock?

There is no difference between sunblock and sunscreen – because ‘sunblock’ technically doesn’t exist.

The term’s been banned by governing bodies like the FDA and the European Commission, because no one sunscreen can actually block out the sun and provide 100% protection.

“Claiming a sunscreen can ‘block’ the sun is misleading as no product can completely block the sun’s rays and protect our skin totally,” explains Cancer Research UK’s health team.

“Spending time in the shade and covering up with clothing are good ways to help protect your skin from the sun. It’s best to think of sunscreen as a ‘last line of defence’ for parts you can’t cover up.”

So if, for whatever reason, you do see a sunscreen advertising itself as a ‘block’ – stick to what you know and look for a high SPF mark and a 4* or higher UVA rating.

Is there a difference between kids and adult suncreams?

Not really, no.

While sunscreens are marketed as being suitable for children or adults, consultant cosmetic surgeon Paul Banwell explains: “The SPF is the same and the quality is the same.”

Bevis Man, from the British Skin Foundation, adds: “This boils down to preference in terms of packaging, smell and colour, as opposed to a difference in effectiveness between an adult product and a child equivalent. Some sunscreens are coloured to make them more fun to apply, for example.”

The key thing to look for, again, is the high SPF and high UVA protection ratings.

What else can I do to keep my child safe from the sun?

In addition to using sunscreen, you can also make sure to spend time in the shade and ensure your child’s covered up with clothing.

“To double check whether the clothing would be good for UV protection is to hold it up to the light and see if any comes through.

“A sheer or lacy fabric will show a lot of the light still comes through, so that’s not going to be providing particularly good protection from the sun.”

You also need to keep an eye on what they’re wearing in the pool, too – because as Nikki says: “When a t-shirt stretches when it’s wet, the fibres are pulled further apart, so more of the light can get through. It’s worth thinking about.”

Finally, if you’re really concerned and want to get as much protection as humanly possible, special SPF clothing is available, however Nikki says it’s not “something that we [Cancer Research UK] recommend that everyone needs to do.”

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