7 Ways to Make Applying Sunscreen Easier and More Fun for Kids


By: , – Hillary Copsey
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Living in Southern Florida, I've become something of a sunscreen aficionado.
There are bottles in my purses, tubes in our cars, more in our medicine cabinets and in the garage cabinet where the outdoor toys are stored. I put on an SPF-laden moisturizer every morning as soon as I get out of the shower and my two sons are lotioned up before they head to daycare most days. It's just part of our routine.
Getting the kids to hold still long enough to get fully covered in sun protection hasn't always been easy. Most toddlers seem to feel like you're putting molten lava on their skin when you smear on the sunscreen. To get my boys – ages 2 and 4 – used to it, I let them “help” by lotioning up a spot I'd already done or smearing a bit on my face while I rubbed sunscreen into theirs. I waited until they were trapped in their carseats to smear sunscreen on their faces, the body part that seemed to elicit the most rage. I pretended I was a monster chasing them, swiping sunscreen on them when they were captured.
I bribed them with treats. I threatened with time-outs. I sang silly songs while I rubbed. But mostly, I just did it until eventually they got used to it.
Everyday sunscreen is a good idea – at least on faces, which get daily sun exposure – and will help make applying sunscreen on your pool or beach days easier. Here are a few more ideas for making sure you and your kids are well-protected when you play in the sun:
  1. Don't wait until you hit the beach or the pool to put on sunscreen. Ideally, sunscreen is applied at least 30 minutes before exposure, so it's best to lotion up before you leave your house anyway, and there are other advantages. At home, there are fewer distractions – no waves beckoning them from your blanket, no other kids eager to play Marco Polo, no hot sand burning their toes – and no sand or other outdoor elements to get smeared into the sunscreen.
  1. Cover everything. If you apply the sunscreen at home before you put on their bathing suit, you can make sure every inch of skin is covered – even the stuff under your bathing suit. The sun's rays can penetrate cloth and wet bathing suits can ride down. No one likes those nasty little sunburns along the edge of a bathing suit. Sunscreen then swimsuit is a good rule of thumb for anyone.
  1. Use at least a palmful of sunscreen on your child. Doctors recommend a half-ounce of sunscreen for a child and an ounce for a teen or adult. A palmful is an easy way to figure that out, and if you're in doubt, more is never a bad idea.
  1. Remember to reapply. Even water-proof and water-resistant sunscreens wear off after prolonged exposure, according to the American Melanoma Foundation. I generally try to reapply sunscreen every 30 minutes to an hour – basically, whenever I feel my skin getting warm, I put more sunscreen on myself and my boys. The boys don't mind the reapplications because usually they get a snack while I lotion them up. I also have been known to do sneak attacks while they dig in the sand.
  1. Have a variety of sunscreens. Several studies have looked at the potential dangers of the chemicals in sunscreens, as well as the effectiveness of the various brands. The Environmental Working Group has a comprehensive, searchable database that ranks sunscreens for safety and effectiveness. I try to use the best-ranked brands as our primary sunscreen – these are the lotions I put on our whole bodies before we leave for the beach and the stuff I continue to smear on at least our faces while we're there. But, I also work on the assumption that getting it on is the most important thing, so, while spray sunscreens generally aren't well-ranked, I usually keep a can in our beach bag for the times when a squirmy, sandy toddler just isn't going to hold still long enough to have thick lotion rubbed into his skin. It's not ideal, but it's on.
  1. Don't rely only on sunscreen. Clothes and shades really are the best sun protection. You can buy swim clothes at nearly any major department store that have SPF built right into the fabric. When we go to the beach, my boys wear shirts with their swim trunks and hats as long as I can keep the things on their heads. We bring an umbrella and in between trips to the water, the boys dig in the shaded sand. The clothes are sunscreen they don't mind and I don't have to worry about.
  1. Finally, tell your kids why sunscreen is important. Children are sponges. My 4-year-old has heard so often that sunscreen keeps your skin safe and keeps the sun from burning you that he'll remind me to that we need to put it on. You can apply sunscreen yourself to younger children, but try to remember that eventually those kids will be teens and young adults, possibly out of reach of your lotions as well as your nagging. Teach them why they need sunscreen and maybe they'll actually listen.
Is sunscreen a part of your daily routine? Do you fight with your kids about applying sunscreen every summer? What works for your family?
Hillary Copsey is a newspaper features editor in Florida with experience writing about everything from population trends to health-care issues. As the mother of two boys, she also is versed in searching for daycares, cooking healthy dinners on the fly and playing with trucks. She co-writes the blog Not raising brats. She writes about parenting for dailySpark and BabyFit.com.

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