Sunscreen is important to protect young children because they are very susceptible to sunburn. Yet applying sunscreen to children in a child care program requires thought and careful planning. Sunscreen is considered a non-prescription medication and should be administered only if the parents give written consent. The following are some guidelines related to using sunscreen in child care.
As with all other medications, parents must provide written permission for child care providers to apply sunscreen to their child. Strongly encourage parents to supply sunscreen for their children by explaining that sunburn can increase the risk of later skin problems, including skin cancer. Have parents complete a medication administration form specifying when sunscreen should be applied, and be sure they supply the sunscreen. Label individual sunscreen bottles with the child's name.
Sunscreen is not recommended for children under 6 months old. Instead, protect young infants from the sun by covering them with hats, long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and shade. If parents insist that you use sunscreen on their infants, request written permission and specific instructions from the child's doctor.
Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes prior to going outside. When using sunscreen, apply generously to all exposed parts of the body. Don't forget about hands, ears, feet, shoulders, and behind the neck. Lift up bathing suit straps and apply sunscreen underneath them (in case the straps shift as the child moves). Don't forget the mouth area -- apply only a small amount of sunscreen carefully to the lips and rub it in. Be careful not to get sunscreen in the child's eyes, nose, or mouth. Reapplying sunscreen is essential for proper protection. Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours while children are in the sun, and even more often if they are swimming or playing in water.
Treat sunscreen as you would any other medication. Use only the sunscreen bottle provided by that child's parents and labeled with that child's name. Be sure to wash your hands after applying sunscreen to each child. Store sunscreen like other medications, in a locked area inaccessible to children.
What's the difference between sunblock and sunscreen? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, sunscreens are chemicals that "protect your skin by absorbing and/or reflecting UVA and UVB rays." On the other hand, sunblock is made of physical or inorganic ingredients that actually block, reflect, and scatter the sun's rays. Parents may want to do a patch test to ensure their child is not sensitive to the sunscreen they have selected. Sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are less irritating to the skin and do not get absorbed.
Talk with parents about the reasons why sunscreen is important for children. Recommend that they select an SPF of 30 or higher with broad-spectrum coverage to prevent both sunburn and tanning. For water activities, suggest a waterproof sunscreen that will wash off less quickly.
It is important for young children to have many opportunities for outside play and activities when weather permits. But care is needed when applying sunscreen to keep children safe and healthy. Follow the appropriate guidelines to be sure children are well protected from sun damage.
To learn more about keeping children safe and healthy in child care, check out the eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care section on Health and Safety in Child Care.