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Sun Protection for Kids: Top Tips from Dermatologist Dr Natalia Spierings

Sun Protection for Kids: Top Tips from Dermatologist Dr Natalia Spierings

Sun protection for children is important every day but even more so now that Spring has finally arrived. It’s a tricky ordeal for parents though as kids aren’t thrilled about having it applied. We spoke with an expert, dermatologist Dr Natalia Spierings, to find out how best to keep children’s skin safe.

We’ve also got some great tips to share from mums about how to make suncream application less of a battle!

Dr Spierings is a Consultant Dermatologist and author of ‘Skintelligent: What you really need to know to get great skin’. You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

At what age should children start wearing sunscreen and why is it so important to start young?

So there are two major issues here: the first is that sun exposure is the main source of vitamin D and it is absolutely essential for healthy bone development in children. The second issue is that sunburn in childhood is a recognised risk factor for skin cancer in older age.

So how do you balance the need for children to be protected from sun damage while at the same time allowing them to exercise, play outside and produce sufficient levels of vitamin D?

The best answer is not straight forward but here is a summary based on guidance from NICE (National Institute for Health + Care Excellence) and the British Association of Dermatologists:

  • For children age 1 year+, NICE recommends daily supplementation of 400 IU of vitamin D per day
  • NICE advises NOT to routinely monitor blood vitamin D levels in children
  • Ensure that children have an adequate dietary calcium intake (check out bda.uk.com for more info on this)
  • ‘Safe’ sun exposure:
    • Prolonged exposure to strong sunlight (leading to burning or tanning) does NOT lead to excess production of vitamin D, because your body has a mechanism for destroying excess vitamin D if it is produced
    • For optimal vitamin D production, exposure of the arms and legs (with SPF on the face) for about 5 to 30 minutes between 10 am and 3 pm twice a week is sufficient for vitamin D synthesis
    • However, this 5-30 minute window is wide because the exact time depends on how dark the skin is naturally, time of day, season, latitude and person’s age (longer periods of exposure are needed for those with darker skin)
    • The time needed to make sufficient vitamin D is typically short and less than the amount of time needed for skin to redden and burn. Going outside for a matter of minutes without sunscreen around midday should be enough for most people

I generally would not recommend exposing infants to sun in general (keep them in the cool shade, keep them covered up if exposing to sun). When children get a bit older and start to crawl or walk and play outside, then the first line of defence should be protective clothing followed by a minimum of SPF 30 and a good UVA protection. Technically, there is no exact age at which sunscreen should be used.

My eldest child hates having sunscreen applied. Any tips for how a parent best explain to get children to understand the importance of wearing SPF so they are calmer and more open to it?

I would actually suggest to focus on having your child wear protective clothing as the first line of defence against sun damage rather than SPF. By this I mean clothing, hats and sunglasses. You use the sunscreen to ‘boost’ this protection. If the child is covered up then the use of sunscreen doesn’t have to be such a massive issue and you would just put it on his face, hands and arms.

I’m not sure you can explain it to a child without scaring them about going outside in general – children tend to see things in a very black and white way (sun is either bad or its good) in my experience with patients.

What is the best way to apply sunscreen on children that gets best coverage most efficiently?

This is where sprays and sticks can become very helpful. Sunscreen sticks are like deodorant sticks and you can make it a game by having your child roll the ‘sunscreen stick’ everywhere his or her skin is going to be exposed to sun. Sticks are great because they provide fairly even coverage without the need to rub it in and they are generally not too slimy.

Sprays are another option but you still have to rub them into the skin. The good thing about the sticks is that they can be pure mineral sunscreen sticks which is great because they go on white so you can see where the child has applied it and where he or she may have missed a spot.

What amount of sunscreen do kids need to wear? How do you measure it to make sure you are using enough?

The amount of sunscreen required to have the stated SPF of the one you are using takes a lot more sunscreen than you probably think! For an adult it is one shot glass full (so about 35 ml) and for a toddler it is about half that amount. The other way to measure the volume is the amount that would fill the palm of your toddler’s hand.

Don’t forget to apply it to ears, neck and the tops of feet and hands. And of course lips burn too so get a SPF 30 or higher lip balm and apply that. It is also useful to apply to the eyelid area. It is best to apply the sunscreen to the child 15 minutes before sun exposure and without their swimming costume on so you don’t miss the areas hidden under straps that may move around.

Do kids need to wear sunscreen daily like adults are advised to now? 

Probably. It is possible that children are more sensitive to the damaging effects of the sun than adults. However, children tend to be inside most of the day at school so on a regular daily basis for school children it may be asking too much to put on sunscreen every single morning.

Encourage your child to wear a hat and long sleeves if they are going to play outside during the day and use sunscreen as a back-up.


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How often does it need applying – and do reapplications need to be the full amount applied in the morning? Sunscreen containers offer such vague guidance on this.

Annoyingly for most kids (and adults), the recommendation is to reapply at least every 2 hours and immediately after swimming, sweating and towel drying or rubbing it off. Yes the reapplications need to be the full amount – same as applied in the morning.

Anything in particular to avoid eye stinging – do you put it on their eye area?

Yes you do want to put it around the eyes/eyelids – I like mineral sunscreens or sticks for this purpose because they aren’t runny and they are easy to apply. Mineral sunscreens don’t tend to be stingy.

Sunscreen instructions say kids should avoid the sun during peak hours. ‘Peak’ time range can vary and this long range is obviously tricky with kids as that’s the main part of their day. If you’re on holiday it’s particularly tricky! What do you suggest?

Everybody is meant to avoid the sun during peak hours. But it is unrealistic if you are on holiday or it is a summer day. Children need to play and have fun as do adults, especially when on holiday. Use the basic precautions and guidance I’ve suggested and then just go out and enjoy the holiday. Reapply every 2 hours (the same volume of sunscreen as the first application of the day) and try to keep covered and that’s it.


Have a designated spot at home where there’s a mirror they can sit in front of.

Let kids choose what music they want to listen to while you are applying sunscreen.

Get silly, get dotty. Put dots on suncream around their face and neck and then let them rub them in.

Pretend to run a beauty parlour or face painting stall at a festival – you are doing make-up / applying face paint! Talk like you are creating fun colourful shapes and looks.

You apply sunscreen to their face and neck then they get to do it on their arms and legs.

Squirt sunscreen on a make up brush or sponge and let them apply it to their faces themselves (just check for good coverage). Be sure to use a brush that’s intended for liquid make-up  and wash brushes and sponges regularly.

For toddlers –  apply while they are strapped in to high-chair or car seat so they can’t bolt.

Set a timer and make it feel like a challenge – can you get their suncream on before the buzzer goes off?

Reapplication is essential – but instead of making it seem like punishment time top-ups with snack / toilet / tv / nap breaks so it’s just an add-on not the main event!

Put refillable squirty bottles, rollerballs or sticks in the school bags and ask them to reapply during lunch break. This may seem mission impossible but I recently accompanied a Y2 class on a school trip and was pleasantly surprised to see several kids take suncream out of their bags during the lunch break and reapply it themselves. It can be done!

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