Sunscreen should be a key ingredient of your family’s sun protection plan this summer. The lotions, sticks and sprays on the market today do an impressive job of shielding our skin – that is, when they’re used correctly. Before your family heads out for some fun in the sun, make sure you’re avoiding these sunscreen slip-ups:
Not knowing A from B. The goal of sun protection is to minimize the skin’s exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, which come in two forms: UVA and UVB. Exposure to UVB rays – the ones that cause burning and redness – can be lessened by using sunscreen or other physical barriers like clothing. However, avoiding sunburn is only half the battle. You also want to minimize exposure to UVA rays, which penetrate more deeply into the skin, causing skin damage and contributing to the development of skin cancer. To confirm that your sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays, check the bottle for the term “broad spectrum.”
Skipping the sunscreen when it’s overcast. I used to think a cloudy day meant a free pass from sunscreen. Boy, was I wrong. UVA rays are present at all times, even when there is cloud cover. UVB rays vary in strength and are highest at mid-day, but unexpected additional exposure can occur as the sun reflects off surfaces such as water, concrete and sand. Now, I insist on sunscreen as a daily non-negotiable habit.
Buying a sunscreen at random. With so many options available, it’s wise to do a little advance research to find a product that makes you feel confident and comfortable. Check out Consumer Reports’ sunscreen ratings or ask other parents for their go-to choices. If you’re interested in chemical-free alternatives (sometimes called “natural” or “mineral” sunscreens), look for products containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. The Environmental Working Group’s Annual Guide to Sunscreens includes many of these products in their reviews.
Forgetting to label it. You want to make sure the sunscreen you’ve carefully selected for your child is used specifically by him/her and doesn’t get misplaced. Add a label to the bottle before packing it for camp or school.
Skimping rather than slathering. Consumer Reports points out that the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating on a sunscreen bottle is based on using the correct amount of the product, and most people don’t use enough. If you apply half the recommended amount of a sunscreen with 30 SPF, you’re actually only getting 15 SPF protection. Consumer Reports recommends using “a teaspoon-sized blob” of sunscreen per body part, noting that a family of four spending a day at the beach should use up an entire regular-sized bottle of sunscreen.
Leaving it to the last minute. I am definitely guilty of this. When the kids and I are in a rush to get somewhere, I tend to grab the sunscreen bottle with the plan that I’ll put it on them when we get there. There are multiple problems with this approach. First, I may forget or there may not be time to do it when we arrive. Second, the process will likely be met with more grumbling since it causes a delay in getting started with their activity, so I may do a rushed (and less thorough) job. Lastly, I’m doing all of us a disservice since sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes prior to sun exposure in order to “sink in” and do its job effectively.
Being lazy about re-applying. Busted again – I have fallen into the trap of putting sunscreen on my kids at 9:00 a.m. and thinking they’re set for the day. The recommended practice is to re-apply every two hours and immediately after swimming, even if the product is water-resistant.
Missing key spots. Arms and legs are easy places to rub in sunscreen, but don’t stop there. Take the time to cover smaller areas such as the back of the neck and the tops of the ears. Mabelhood blogger Noelle Martin provides a full range of sun safety tips (including what she calls the “scarecrow technique”) in this informative video.
Putting all your faith in a spray. Aerosol spray sunscreen is convenient and certainly better than no sunscreen at all. However, the process of applying it can be hazardous if not performed correctly. For example, it should not be sprayed directly near the face, since inhaling it could cause lung irritation. Instead, spray your hand and rub it on the skin of the face, ears and neck. The “invisible” nature of the spray also makes it hard to know how well the skin is covered, so there is a risk of uneven protection or unnecessary over-spraying. If you buy a spray and aren’t impressed with the results, consider switching to a lotion or stick format.
Using sunscreen on an infant. Health Canada’s sun safety recommendations include keeping babies out of the sun as much as possible and only applying sunscreen after the age of six months.
Ignoring the expiry date. The Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) advises against using sunscreen past its expiry date, as the chemical ingredients may break down and become ineffective. This may occur more rapidly if the product has been frequently stored at high temperatures.
Not using it yourself. As with most things in parenting, kids take their cue from you. Model sun-safe behaviour and be a diligent sunscreen user yourself. Avoid comments such as “I’m working on my tan” or “I never burn.” Instead, be positive about your family’s sunscreen routine. Put it on, get outside and do your thing!