If you’ve not yet experienced it yourself, it’s likely you’ve watched this poolside scene go down. The sunscreen application meltdown.

The typical perpetrator includes a very wiggly toddler. Nearby, a stressed-appearing parent holds a tube of sunscreen. Soon they’re wrestling tirelessly to apply the hard-to-squeeze tube contents onto the squirmy child. Meanwhile, the child’s tantrum grows steadily in amplitude.

Or maybe your child is the preteen rolling their eyes when reminded it’s time to reapply at the beach. “You’re messing with my glow, mom.” Their eyeroll grows in amplitude.

One thing is certain. Whether your child is 18 months old or 18 years old, encouraging consistent sun safety can feel like an uphill battle.

But it’s worth taking on. Skin cancer remains the most common form of cancer in the United States. A single blistering sunburn in childhood nearly doubles the risk of developing melanoma during adulthood.

As a pediatrician, I consider it part of my job description to be a sun safety cheerleader. Since gazing down the sunscreen aisle presents an endless variety of options, it can feel daunting. In fact, an article in JAMA Dermatology revealed that most of us don’t fully understand all that’s written on a sunscreen label.

It’s a mini science lesson worth teasing through. So here we go!

Abbreviation Overload

UVA! UVB! SPF! Familiar acronyms? Maybe, but what does it all mean?!

Lesson one. UVA and UVB. Aka ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B light. UVA has a longer wavelength and is associated with skin aging. UVB has a shorter wavelength and is associated with sunburns. Both contribute to the development of various skin cancers.

SPF, the sun protection factor, describes how well a sunscreen protects from UVB light. The number that follows indicates how much UVB light a certain sunscreen can filter. More on this below.

Remember These Words

While shopping for sunscreen, many argue that the most important words to look for are “broad-spectrum.” Broad-spectrum sunscreens offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Remember, SPF only describes UVB protection.

After spotting “broad spectrum, then examine the SPF number. Experts most consistently recommend using SPF 30. However, SPF 15 does not mean you’re getting half the protection. While SPF 15 filters 93% of the sun’s UVB rays, SPF 30 filters 97%. No sunscreen filters out 100%.

In fact, avoid allowing higher SPF numbers create a false sense of security. A higher SPF does not make extended sun exposure without reapplication okay. Reapplication should occur every 2 hours regardless.

Ingredients Galore

You’ve finally spotted your broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreens on the store shelf, but yikes! Still so many to choose from!

To simplify the decision making, I usually recommend my patients look for products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These are physical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens work like a shield sitting on top of your skin, deflecting sunrays. Different from chemical sunscreens which absorb sunrays similarly to a sponge.

Physical sunscreens are a great choice for young kids and family members with sensitive skin or eczema.


Finally, water resistance. Water resistance measures the amount of time the SPF level stays effective while wet. If you look closer, they’re designated as either 40 minutes or 80 minutes. This indicates how long the sunscreen remains effective while swimming or sweating.

What does that mean for reapplication? If wearing while dry, reapply every 2 hours. However, if wet, reapply according to the 40 or 80-minute designation.

Alright, there it is mamas! You survived my nerdy guide to sunscreen basics! Hopefully this helps demystify the most important product in your family’s arsenal of outdoor essentials.

See Post 2: A Geeky Guide to Sun Protective Clothing


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Paras is an Iranian American, born in Tehran and raised in Texas. She is now pleased to call Colorado home. She is the mother of two rambunctious boys, a wife to an equally rambunctious husband (genetics!) and a pediatrician. Paras attended medical school at the University of North Texas Health Science Center and went on to complete her pediatric residency training at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Her special interests include childhood advocacy, healthcare education, and she absolutely loves working with new parents. After having children of her own, she quickly realized that raising kiddos was not as straightforward as many pediatric medical texts or parenting books might imply! She has found it extremely fulfilling to navigate the challenging, yet rewarding world of being a working mom alongside her patients and peers. In her spare time, Paras enjoys hiking, embroidery and is an aspiring yogi on the journey to attaining and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.