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Top 10 Tips for Applying Sunscreen to Kids

When I was young, factor 15 sun cream was what the overprotective mothers put on their kids. Getting sunburned was all part of getting your “base tan” to set you up for the summer.

These days however – we know more. We know that in moderation, the sun provides our kids with so much goodness – it provides them with vitamin D, which helps their bodies absorb calcium for stronger, healthier bones; helps brain health and moods; and helps growth and sleep function. But it’s when unprotected exposure to the sun becomes excessive, our children are open to the dangers such as skin and eye damage, immune system suppression, and skin cancer.

Getting sunburnt as a child or teenager, can increase the risk of developing melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer) as an adult. So when we’re looking for a way for our kids to be ever grateful to us, even when they fly the coup – protecting their delicate skin as a child is one of them. (There’s a handy quiz by the Irish Cancer Society to identify your skin type (or your child’s) to understand how to protect it:  https://www.cancer.ie/reduce-your-risk/sunsmart/skin-type-quiz

My children do not share my views around the importance of wearing sunscreen - they like to live in the moment, and believe the benefits of avoiding being covered head to toe in sticky sunscreen, far outweigh the threat of burn, or something that might happen to them in adulthood (100 years away in their minds).

Given this short-sighted view they have chosen to take, I’ve had to implement a series of tactics to ensure I don’t end up like a screaming banshee two or three times a day, and that they don’t end up like little skinny little cooked lobsters. Here are my top ten tricks and hacks for applying sunscreen to kids: (and before you crack on - download our free mini ebook with the top ten tips for applying sunscreen to squirmy kids HERE ):

One: Make Sunscreen Application Part of the Morning Routine

During the summer months, include the arduous task of the first application of the day as part of their morning routine. It should become as much of a ritual as having breakfast or brushing teeth. This will help form a habit for children, and they may become less resistant to the suggestion of application once they have accepted it is part of the morning ritual. It also gets the morning application out of the way, so you can enjoy your morning coffee without the dread of the ensuing brawl (that particular brawl anyway).

Two: Bribe Them

Bribe over burn

So cards on the table - I’m an advocate of bribery. Advocate might be a bit strong, but it certainly ranks in my top ten (three) parenting tools. Just to make it slightly less controversial, in this instance, I like to bribe them with Vitamin Jellies. I like to shove some extra vitamins into my kids daily, just in case my attempts to provide balanced meals every day falls short (or as is often the case, half the food ends up on the floor).

It’s crucial to delay handing over the reward until the full application is complete – otherwise you’ve lost. If it’s a two jelly dose, you can always drip feed them if things get particularly tricky.

Three: Let the child apply the sunscreen themselves

Sunscreen on hands

I know. This is beyond annoying, and will only work if you have ALL DAY to wait, and don’t mind sunscreen all over everything, but it does work. For me – it’s a last resort…but unfortunately, I’m a frequent visitor at the Last Resort Motel in my day-to-day parenting.

Either let your kids go the whole hog with the application and you just fill in the gaps, or else dot it onto them, and let them join the dots and rub it in. Put them in front of a mirror for added entertainment (theirs….not yours).

You can also give them a doll to apply it to, while you sneakily apply it to the rest of them. Also messy and gross, and means you’re adding washing a doll into your routine.


Four: Make it a Race

My kids thrive (in an unhealthy way) on competition. Did I instil this in them? Maybe. Am I sorry now? Definitely. They can’t even take a pee without competing to see who can stand the furthest away and still get it (some of it) in. So yes, I’m very sorry. Anyway – in this instance, it can be valuable.

This approach is messy, but effective. The downside - there has to be a loser. And given you are the grown up, you have to deal with that. So in reality, there are no winners.

Five: Set a Timer

Keeping with the competitive theme, setting a timer for everyone to be sun-screened up and dressed can get kids moving a little quicker. Set a timer, and the winner is the first with sun screen fully applied and is fully dressed. Kids are more likely to go along with things when you can but a definitive time on it.

This tactic requires focus on your part - you need to get the job done in the given timeframe - otherwise you have a half-done child - because there's no renegotiating for you once the buzzer sounds. You tell them 3 minutes....it had better be 3 minutes.

Six: Lie Down On the Job

Timmy feet

This for me has been the most successful sunscreen application trick to date. By lying your child down on their back, you’re restricting their ability to squirm and move away from you, which is what makes sunscreen application such a pain for parents. These steps for me, were the key to success:

  • Lie the child down on a towel. Start with the face (we use a sunscreen for sensitive skin here, to avoid sore eyes), and rub the sunscreen between your two hands. Get the child to close their eyes and mouth, and apply in a sweeping downward motion from their nose to their ears – a bit like when you get a facial, except way less relaxing for you here. (If you’re working your way through kids, make sure you don’t have perfumed sunscreen left on your hands when you get to the next child’s face, if they are in any way sensitive).
  • Then work your way down the body from the nexk down, including both sides of the arms and legs, which is easily done while they are still on their backs.
  • Once you’ve finished the legs, pull the child into a seated position, and then apply sunscreen to their back.

Children are naturally more relaxed when lying down, rather than in a standing position, ready to bolt – so this technique can work wonders for everyone’s stress levels.

Seven: Distract, Distract, Distract

Distract your kids with any toy that will engage them for long enough for you to stealthily cover them in sunscreen. If you're that way inclined (like myself), stick the kids in front of the TV or a tablet while you quickly apply, and they may hardly notice what’s happening. Sometimes a kid gazing at a screen can make the application process a little more bearable for both the child and the parent tasked with the job.

Kids YouTube is a real winner for this – because you can set a timer for it to play for just a few minutes, before it locks down and “goes asleep”.

YouTube Kids

Eight: Buy the right sunscreen

Not only should you buy the right type of sunscreen (broad spectrum to protect against both UVA and UVB rays, and water resistant), but you also need to buy a sunscreen that is right for your child. Certain things turn certain kids off sunscreen – it’s too sticky, too smelly, too slippy – the list goes on. Find the sunscreen that your children are the LEAST turned off by, and stick with this. If your kids have in any way sensitive skin or eyes, make sure you stick with “Sensitive” or “non-perfumed” in particular on the face.

Nine: Chase ‘n’ Spray

While aerosol spray sunscreens aren’t always recommended for kids (they may inhale the sunscreen given its sprayed into the air around them), they can be very handy for reapplications while your child is happily playing throughout the day. You will not be welcomed with any form of sunscreen if they are knee-deep in fun, so using a spray can be a very handy way to apply it as they continue what they are doing. It can provide great coverage, given you make sure to rub it in once you’ve hit the target.

Roll-Ons are also handy to rub onto the back of a passing child’s neck, when they’re least expecting it.

Ten: Cover Up

Boys looking out to sea

Fred looking out to sea

If you’re having little success with getting the sunscreen on – or you’re getting outright refusal – cover them up. There are some great clothes on the market today offering UV protection – and many with long sleeves and high necks. This coupled with a wide brimmed hat, and long shorts will go a long way to protect children from the sun.

Some other things to watch out for when protecting your kids from the sun:

  • Sunscreen takes 30 minutes to properly absorb into the skin, so that it can be fully effective – so you need to plan in a bit of lead time
  • Reapply every two hours – more often if the kids are in the water
  • Get your kids to wear a hat all the time in the sun – this will keep their heads from overheating and getting burned, and also if it has a peak or a wide brim, it will keep the sun out of their eyes. Tie-on hats work best for smaller kids – especially if they’re not hat lovers and tend to whip them off.
  • The sun can penetrate glass – so make sure you have suitable screens up in cars if your child is sitting by the window on car journeys.
  • Cheap non-UV sunglasses that are often available for kids, are having the complete opposite effect to protecting their eyes. Squinting is our natural defence for our eyes against harmful UV rays. Put a pair of shades on your child, and they don't have to squint (which is good). Their pupil dilates to let in more light because of the dark shade. If the tinted lens is not UV protected, then their eyes are wide open to damage from UV rays (which is bad). So make sure that the sun glasses show that they have UV 400 protection. A CE mark is also good - but that doesn't mean 100% that they have UV400. To show a CE mark, sun glasses should offer protection of UV380 - only a minimal difference from UV400.

Glasses on leaf

Long summers of playing in the sun are so good for our children – but only if we are protecting them from the dangers of the sun. The sunscreen battle is one of the ones worth fighting, and it’s a must that you win this one.

Download your free Sunscreen Mini EBook for our top ten tips for applying sunscreen to kids, to share with whoever you face the sunscreen battle with, so that you might provided a united front, in the daily sunscreen battle with kids. Good Luck!

So remember - the top ten tips for getting sunscreen on your kids:

  1. Make it part of the morning routine
  2. Use bribery
  3. Let the child apply it themselves
  4. Have a race
  5. Set a timer
  6. Lie the child on their back
  7. Distract them
  8. Buy the right sunscreen for the child
  9. Chase ‘n’ Spray
  10. Cover Up (when all else fails)


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