There are a lot of sunscreens on the market today and it can be very confusing on which one is the best choice. Mineral or organic? Sweat-resistant or water-resistant? Spray or lotion? Selecting the one for your children can be a challenge. The most important thing to remember when choosing a sunscreen is how well it protects the skin from harmful UV rays.

What to look for
You should first take note of the sunscreen container's SPF (sun protection factor) number. It should be easily visible on the front label. You will want to select a SPF of 30 or higher because it will prevent sunburns and tanning, both which are signs the skin is being damaged. You should also pick a sunscreen that will protect against both UV and UVB rays (generally labeled as “broad-spectrum” sunscreen).

Sunscreens that come in a spray can be convenient, but should be used with caution. These sprays are easily breathed in, and can irritate the lungs. Spray containers may also be flammable, so you will need to use extra caution when you apply them, keeping away from flames or sparks. Sprays also make it more difficult to tell if the sunscreen has enough on to protect the skin from burning.

Here are some other things to think about:

  • Avoid using sunscreens that contain PABA, as these may cause skin allergies
  • Sensitive skin users should look for sunscreens that have the active ingredient titanium dioxide
  • If you are looking for a self-tanner, make sure that it has UV protection. (Most of these products have no UV protection, or very little at best.)

All babies six months old or younger should be kept out of the sun. When you take your baby outside, make sure to dress them in lightweight clothes that cover their legs as well as their arms. And, make sure they have a hat on. If you need to be out in the sun, your baby's exposed areas (hands and feet) should have a little amount of sunscreen applied to them.

How to use sunscreen
In order for sunscreen to do its job, you must correctly apply it. Make sure to:

  • Always apply sunscreen before your children go out into the sun. To get the most protection, apply the sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before they go out into the sun.
  • Remember to apply sunscreen to shoulders, hands, feet, ears, and the back of their neck. Be sure to get under their bathing suit straps with the sunscreen, because those straps can move and leave their skin unprotected. Use a SPF 30 lip balm for their lips.
  • Use a generous amount of sunscreen. Dermatologists generally recommend that you use one ounce (or about a shot glass) to cover an exposed area of the body.
  • Sunscreen should be reapplied often, about every two hours is recommended. You should also reapply after they have been swimming, involved in water activities or sweating.
  • Use a water-resistant sunscreen if your children plan on being in water (swimming or water activities). When the sun reflects off of the water it intensifies, so your children will need a sunscreen that stays on and protects them. Some water-resistant products are also sweat-resistant, and can last as long as 80 minutes, but you should still reapply their sunscreen when they get of the water.
  • Don't skimp on the sunscreen. Make sure to have plenty on hand.
  • Check the containers for expiration dates and throw away sunscreen that is past that date. If there is no expiration date, or it has washed off, don't take chances, and throw it out and get new.

All children need protection from the sun. The American Academy of Dermatology (ADD) recommends that all children, regardless of their skin tone, wear sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30. It's true that darker skin has more protective melanin and does tan easier, but tanning is also considered a sign of sun damage. Darker skinned children can also get sunburned.

And keep in mind that you need to be a good role model. By keeping on a sunscreen SPF or higher, and limiting the amount of time you spend in the sun, you will reduce the risk of your skin being damaged and will help teach your children the proper way to stay safe in sun.