How to Keep Kids Sun-Safe on Vacation - The Expedition
Kid applying sunscreen to face

How to Keep Kids Sun-Safe on Vacation

For a lot of families, it’s not a real vacation unless you have serious sun.

But parents need to be especially vigilant about their kids’ skin on balmy getaways. More than half of the sun exposure that eventually leads to cancer takes place before children are 18, says Dr. Britt Craiglow, pediatric dermatologist at Dermatology Physicians of Connecticut.

“It is even more damaging the younger the exposure occurs,” she says.

When you’re traveling, sun protection can end up being an afterthought—especially if you live in a less-than-tropical destination, where covering up isn’t part of your normal routine. We talked to dermatologists for advice on how to be sun-responsible when traveling with your kids.

Start with Clothes

The first line of defense against the sun shouldn’t be sunscreen but hats and protective clothing, Dr. Craiglow says. Clothes can not only be more effective at blocking UV rays, they don’t rub off, don’t run out and mean few chemicals on a kid’s skin. Instead of having to reapply sunscreen on a child’s legs, back, neck, you just have to worry about exposed parts like hands and feet. 

Dr. Craiglow advises parents to buy apparel that is specifically designed to shield skin from the sun. “The true UPF-rated stuff is what you want,” she says. “Not just a tee shirt.” 

Babies should not only be dressed in protective clothing, they should be kept out of the sun in the middle of the day, says Beth Goldstein, a board certified dermatologist with the Central Dermatology Center in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. 

Know What to Look For 

“Every dermatologist is going to tell you that you want to get a mineral or physical sunscreen,” Dr. Craiglow says. That means zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient. Choose a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher, labeled “broad spectrum” and is water-resistant, she adds. 

While you can apply adult sunscreen to children, it’s better to choose kid-specific formulas, which are simpler, Dr. Goldstein says: “For children, the fewer additional ingredients the better.” 

Avoid chemical sunscreens, specifically ingredients such as oxybenzone and octocrylene. “They can be absorbed into young skin,” Dr. Goldstein says. “Those are to be avoided at all costs.” 

Make Exceptions For Teens

Photography experts often say that the best camera is the one you have with you. The same principle applies to sunscreens, Dr. Craiglow says: “With older kids, the best sunscreen is the sunscreen they’re going to wear.”

Physical sunscreens can leave a white cast on the skin, so they’re not always the most attractive option. Let image-sensitive teens choose their own sunscreen—or try a workaround. 

“I recommend a tinted sunscreen that doesn’t make them look pasty in pictures and can better match skin tone,” Dr. Karan Lal, DO, dermatologist at UMass Memorial Medical Center and marketing committee chair for the Society for Pediatric Dermatology

Apply it Right 

People make two mistakes with sunscreen: Not putting on enough, and not reapplying frequently. It can be especially hard to remember to reapply when you’re on vacation; set an alarm to remind you to put more sunscreen on the kids every two hours. You should also add sunscreen after they swim or sweat. “Even if a sunscreen is water-resistant, you’re going to lose some of the effectiveness,” Dr. Craiglow said. 

Multiple studies have shown that most people don’t apply enough sunscreen, she points out—and that goes for putting it on kids as well. Use a shot glass or golf ball-sized amount to cover the whole body. “SPF is based on applying it appropriately,” Dr. Craiglow says. 

Using enough can be tricky with spray sunscreens. A misting isn’t enough. “Spray it in your hand first,” she says. “Or do a liberal amount and rub it in. Rubbing it in is really important.” 

Use It on All Skin Tones

We tend to worry about kids with lighter skin, and it’s true that that skin type is at higher risk of sunburn and sun damage, Dr. Craiglow says. But people with darker skin can also get skin cancer, and it’s often diagnosed at later stages. 

“I think there is this idea that if you don’t burn you can’t get skin cancer,” she says. “Really everybody should be wearing sunscreen.” 

Consider Sticks

The dermatologists we consulted all recommended stick-form sunscreens for their portability and kid-friendliness. Dr. Goldstein likes that stick sunscreens can be more rub-resistant, which is really helpful with toddlers. Dr. Lal says sticks let kids take ownership—they can apply sunscreen themselves, with grownup supervision. Dr. Craiglow says parents should apply more than they think they need, and to rub it in. 

Sticks also have the advantage of being leak-proof and airline compliant. You can stock up at home, throw a couple in every bag, and know you’ll have enough for an entire trip. 

Sara Clemence is a freelance journalist, formerly travel editor for The Wall Street Journal and news director for Travel + Leisure. She's the author of Away & Aware, a guide to mindful travel.

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