Ask Dr. Bell: Having Fun in the Sun

Published on in Children's View

Ask Dr. BellNow that sunny days are here again, most kids can’t wait to get outdoors. As the temperatures climb, pediatricians at CHOP also see an uptick in concern about sunscreen and bug repellant. What are the most effective ways to use them? Which kinds are the best and safest?

CHOP dermatologist Marissa Perman, MD, follows the latest thinking on the subject, and she emphasizes prevention above all. Sunscreen is most important — and not just in spring and summer, but all year, even when it’s overcast.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher that is water-resistant for 80 minutes and approved for broad spectrum, which means it will protect against the wavelengths of light that most contribute to skin cancer, sunburns and skin aging.

The average adult should use about an ounce — the size of a shot glass — with proportionately less for kids. Lather it on in a thick layer and rub it in well 20 minutes before going outside, to give skin time to absorb it. Whether it’s you or your child outside, reapply sunscreen every two hours, even if you haven’t been swimming, but especially any time you get out of the water.

Some people have questioned the chemicals used in sunscreens, particularly oxybenzone, but there’s still little data about their safety, and the FDA is studying them. If you’re concerned, choose sunscreens that contain avobenzone (Parsol 1789), which has been approved by the FDA, or titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, ingredients that aren’t absorbed by the body. Avoid using sunscreen sprays, because wind may cause them to be applied inconsistently or get in your mouth or eyes.

Also be aware that certain plants, including common fruits and vegetables such as lemons, limes, figs, carrots and parsley, sensitize your skin to the sun and can cause a sunburn-like reaction, blistering or a change in color. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling them.

When it comes to insect repellant, apply it only on exposed skin (not under clothing) to discourage mosquitoes and other bugs from choosing you or your kids for a meal. The best-known and most well-studied repellant is DEET.

Many parents worry about putting bug spray on their kids; however, DEET has been around since 1957 and is very effective and safe when used as directed. In fact, bug sprays containing up to 30 percent DEET (which provides eight hours of protection) are approved for children older than 2 months. Use just enough to cover the skin and spray it on your hands to rub it on the child’s face, avoiding the eyes and mouth. Try to avoid putting it on your kids’ hands, since they often end up in their mouths.

Common sense precautions such as wearing a hat, light clothing and rash guards can also protect against the sun and bugs, but when it’s just too hot to stay covered, sunscreen and insect repellant will allow you and your kids to safely enjoy the great outdoors.