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

By , Hillary Copsey
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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RO2BENT 6/18/2019
Need more than a palm full Report
My friends used to give me grief about being a "pasty Goth" whenever I'd cover up at the beach. I'd apply sunscreen, hang out under an umbrella, wear hats or cover my head and shoulders with a batik sarong like a hijab... I'm a Michigander of English/Scots/Irish descent. I am milk pale with freckles. I am no stranger to sunburns, and they suck. I have a mild one on my back right now as it was the ONE place I didn't reapply sunscreen because I can't reach, and my beach buddy was out in the water at the time. Last sunburn was to my face, upper chest, and shoulders as I was wearing Italian Ren Fest garb and our seats for the joust were in full sun... learned my lesson. Report
the spray on aerosol stuff is the greatest sunscreen invention EVER, as far as I'm concerned. Report
I have sunscreen in my moisturizer that I apply daily. But if I am going to be out in the sun, I always apply sunscreen. I don't have children but I do have a husband who does not always think he has to wear sunscreen. I let him know how important it is to me that he take care of himself. I also remind him that looking like an old baseball mitt is not sexy (ex. tanning mom). Report
Very helpful!! Report
We also live in Southern Florida and it's amazing how quickly you can get a sunburn here. We slather on the sunscreen every time we're headed to outdoor activities. I use a moisturizer with sunscreen in it every day since I am so fair skinned. I haven't been wearing the wide brimmed hats that dermatologists tout, but I'm close to making that leap. I see what happens to sun-drenched skin far too often as we head to the pool, especially when the snowbirds are here. I DO NOT want to look like that at 60, kwim?

Fortunately, my son has grown up with sunscreen as a fact of life, so he's very good about standing still for it. Report
Thank you all for the tips! Great ideas!! Report
Very fair skin here so sunscreen is a must. My 5 year old granddaughter is so used to it that she will actually remind her grandpa or aunt that she needs sunscreen before she goes outside if I am not home. She used to resist having it put on when she first came to live with us so I am happy that she now knows it is needed.

On the positive side I am almost 43 and routinely get carded if I go out or purchase alcohol so always wearing sunscreen pays off!!! Report
DATMAMA4 - that's great! It's not silly at all. The kids got to sing a silly song and got their sunscreen on at the same time! Very ingenious! Report
This may be silly, but we used to sing a song to the kids when they were little, as we put the sunscreen on (to the tune of "Oats, Peas, Beans, and Barley Grow"): Cheeks and nose and ears and chin, cheeks and nose and ears and chin; we won't let the sun shine in on cheeks and nose and ears and chin!"

Before they knew it, I was done putting it on them and they were good to go. Report
I actually got sunburned once & it wasn't even a sunny day, it was actually overcast. I didn't think I needed but apparently, I was wrong. I had never been burned before but this hurt as about as much as anything I have ever felt. The next day I could lift my arms & my body was achy all over. My skin was 2 tones darker & I am an indoor person, meaning if there is a event that calls for outside, I am under the tent or inside if there is anything available. So whenever I know I will be out in straight sun for prolonged periods, I definitely lather up especially the summer time. My face lotion has SPF something in it but I don't hit my arms because I always wear short sleeves or a sweater. It only took that one time for me to understand I needed to have sunscreen on when outdoors! BURNED!! :) LBVS Report