Mother putting sunscreen on her daughter's face, best SPF for kids that hate sunscreen
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Sun Protection Hacks For Kids Who Hate Sunscreen

And ideas for keeping the most stubborn kids protected.

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As a pale, anxious person, I take sunscreen pretty seriously. Unfortunately, my pale, blonde child does not share my awareness of, or concern regarding, the dangers of ultraviolet radiation and the importance of a daily consideration of sun protection factor (SPF). It’s a bit of a bummer to kick off a day of lazy summer fun by trying to explain melanoma to a 5-year-old, but I’ve done this. My rather opinionated kid also doesn’t seem to care — he hates the way lotion feels on his skin and that’s that. Exasperated, I scoured the internet and asked friends for suggestions, and finally we’ve found some sun protection options that my most sensitive, picky kid is happy to wear. If you’re in the weeds with a kid that hates sunscreen, I feel your pain. Sun protection solutions — and why it’s so important to find an SPF that works for your kid — ahead.

Do kids really need sunscreen?

When your child is really choosing to fight you one something — wearing sunscreen, for example — it can be tempting to consider the path of least resistance and simply give up. Is sunscreen really important, or is this a battle we could choose not to choose?

“We do know that ultraviolet radiation exposure is our biggest, most modifiable risk factor for developing skin cancer, so it’s really important to protect our children as much as we can,” says Dr. Elizabeth Berry, Assistant Professor of Dermatology, School of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. “I know all the risk factors as researcher, but I also know the struggles as a mom,” she adds.

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The best approach to sun protection, Berry says, is “multifactorial protection.” In other words, ideally your kid is protected from sun’s UV rays in many ways all at once, rather than relying only tons of sunscreen — that must be reapplied frequently to protect their skin. Berry herself keeps her kid safe from the sun by:

  • Relying first on the UV protection that clothing offers — especially clothes that are darker and tightly-woven — and buying mostly ultraviolet protective clothing.
  • Considering the time of day. “The general rule is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. is the peak UV time. There's something called the UV index that you can check in the weather app on your phone. If it’s above two, that's a time to really layer on the sun protection. If it’s below two, you can be a little bit more laid back.”
  • Hats hats hats. “Hats are always, always a good idea,” Berry says. “I heard an estimate that your hair is only an SPF of 5.”
  • Coating any remaining exposed skin with an SPF lotion, spray or powder. “Get a little bit on the hands, get some on the face, get some on the legs and feet,” Berry says.

I also asked if it’s OK to skip SPF if you’re planning to stick to the shade, as that’s usually our approach on warm days. “Shade is just not quite enough, unfortunately,” Berry explained. Because of the way that ultraviolet light bends, “you’re still getting quite a bit of UV in the shade, so you need a little something,” Berry says. Similarly, cloudy days can still bring a UV risk, too, and do ideally require at least a little consideration of protection.

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SPF ideas if your kids hates sunscreen

Clothing is the cornerstone of Berry’s own family’s approach, and though not all clothes are equally protective, most offer some degree of sun protection. Increasingly, companies like Columbia, Patagonia, Coolibar and Hanna Andersson are designing kids’ clothes that are both super breathable and offer a guaranteed degree of UV protection. “If they're going to be out for a really long time, cover them up with whatever you can,” says Berry. “Then you're just left to sunscreen whatever skin is showing. it becomes less of a struggle because you're not trying to slop on whole-body sunscreen.”

Not only does putting your kid in ultraviolet protective clothing mean that there’s that much less skin needing to be slathered in sunscreen, the clothes also offer more reliable protection than lotions, sprays or powders because those products need to be reapplied frequently — not ideal for a day at school or camp. “Sunscreen needs to go on every two hours. In practice that’s hard,” Berry says, adding that most kids and adults also tend to use about half the FDA recommended amount of sunscreen. Beyond clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), if your kid — like mine — is fully unwilling to wear SPF lotions, Berry recommends trying:

  • SPF sticks.
  • SPF powders. SPF powders are still relatively new on the market, and Berry says she’s still “experimenting” with them. However, she points out they’re FDA-approved, and so probably do offer the protection they claim to when used correctly. She calls powdered SPF “one to consider if you’ve got a child that hates the feeling of sunscreen,” and reminds parents that with powders it’s important to brush over the same area three or four times to ensure coverage.
  • Spray SPF. Sprays are OK, says Berry, but not as good as lotions because you still have rub them in after spraying to ensure coverage and many people skip this crucial step. Just be mindful of your choice of spray, Berry suggests, as “some of the sprays have been recalled in the past few years because of an unanticipated compound that's made it into the sprays called benzene, which is a cancer-causing agent. So, make sure your spray hasn’t been recalled.”

Back to me and my pale, picky, 5 year old, Griffin. It took some trial and error, but — thanks to Berry’s encouragement — we have found not one, but three forms of sun protection that Griffin is excited to wear. He looks super cute in his little blue UV protective cap, and he’s adorably proud about having “three kids of sunscreen that I like!” too, which has been a pleasant surprise.

What’s worked best for us are products that he can apply himself, and that are not at all “lotion-y.” He adores:

  • Brush On Block Kids Mineral Sunscreen. This SPF powder is pretty darn fun — a colorful brush feels good on his skin, and the entire experience of applying it seems to be a sensory joy for him. I wish it were less expensive, but it is what it is.
  • The Supergoop Glow Stick. This is pricey, too, so it’s just for his face, but the kid loves putting it on. He’s very into rocks and minerals, so when I first let him try it out I told him it was like a “special crystal you rub on your face and turns into sunscreen.” He was very jazzed from the get-go, and he likes having something that’s just his.
  • The Kids’ Impluse Hat from Sunday Afternoons. This adorable cap fits like a dream, and the kid just loves it. No battles here.

The bottom line, says Berry, is that sun protection should be an open discussion with your kids. “You don't want your kids to hate you because you're trying to protect them from the sun, but you're trying to keep them as safe as you can within their limits.” Just do your best, and know that there is probably a form of sun protection — perhaps as simple as just wearing darker, more tightly-woven clothes — that’ll work for your kid.


Dr. Elizabeth Berry, Assistant Professor of Dermatology, School of Medicine at Oregon Health & Science University