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Here's what I recommend:
- Choose a "physical" or "chemical-free" sunscreen made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These minerals stay on top of the skin, forming a barrier against the sun's rays. With chemical sunscreens, the skin absorbs the active ingredients, so these products are more likely than physical sunscreens to cause irritation or allergic reactions.
- Check the label for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to make sure you're getting a physical sunscreen. These products are traditionally known as "sunblocks," but any sunscreen may have that word on the label.
- Look for a broad-spectrum product, meaning that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Any sunscreen that contains the physical sunblocks zinc oxide or titanium dioxide does this.
- Choose a product with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. But note that with chemical sunscreens, a higher SPF means you're getting more chemical exposure for very little added protection.
- Finally, you'll want a water-resistant product, which provides sun protection for the length of time listed on the label (generally 40 to 80 minutes) – even while swimming or sweating.
- It's fine to use a "children's" sunscreen, but don't go out of your way (or pay more!) for one. There's no guarantee that they're any different from the adult versions.
Here are some tips for using sunscreen properly:
- If you decide to use a chemical-based sunscreen, do a test first to make sure your child won't have a reaction to it: Apply a small amount to the inside of the upper arm. If your child develops a rash or redness at the site by the next day, use another product instead.
- Chemical sunscreens need to be slathered on 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside to give the skin time to absorb the protective chemicals. Sunscreens with physical barriers start to work as soon as you put them on.
- Apply the sunscreen thickly, making sure every part of your child's body gets a good coating. Pay special attention to areas that are prone to burning, like the ears, nose, back of the neck, and shoulders. To make it easier to tell if you're covering every inch of your child's vulnerable skin, some sunscreens have a bright tint when first applied that fades to clear after a few minutes.
- Parents often find spray-on sunscreens convenient, but with these it's hard to tell if you've used enough to cover all exposed areas effectively. If you do use one of these products, spray an area of skin until it's wet and then rub it in to ensure even coverage.
- Reapply sunscreen often. Don't trust a label that promises sun protection for eight hours. That's only accurate if your child stays perfectly still for that long! In the real world, he'll need more sunscreen every two hours or after every time he gets wet or is dried off with a towel.
Note: It's best to keep a baby younger than 6 months out of the sun altogether. When that's not feasible, be sure to protect your baby with sunscreen, no matter how young he is.