Sun protection for children: Are six- to eight-hour products reliable?

Q: I’m taking my young children on a beach holiday and wonder whether sun protection for children claiming six- to eight-hour protection is reliable?

A: The incidence of skin cancer is increasing and studies suggest that the majority of UV damage suffered by our skin occurs before the age of 20. ‘That shows how important it is to protect children from overexposure to the sun. Redness is a sign of sunburn but the damage starts before that,’ says a spokesperson for the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD).

sun protection for children
Maria Dorner/

‘Using any type of sun protection is much better than none, but while extended-wear products can seem like a godsend for busy parents they may also lull them into a false sense of security,’ says BAD. There are three main concerns about the efficacy of extended-wear sunscreens, which apply to adults, too.

  1. Research shows that people tend to apply about half the amount of product needed, which means the sun protection is actually reduced by as much as two thirds. ‘When sun protection products are tested, they are applied liberally and regularly. If users do not follow the same practice they will not be afforded the full strength of protection,’ explains BAD’s Sunscreen Fact Sheet.
  2. It’s very easy to miss a bit of skin; if you don’t reapply sunscreen within a couple of hours, that area is exposed to the sun all day.
  3. Even if the product is water resistant, it’s easy to towel it off after swimming or wipe it off a child’s face. (Boots recommends reapplying any sun protection, including its Soltan 8-hour Protect products, after spending time in the water or towelling dry.)

‘Babies should always be kept out of the sun because they can easily overheat; their sensitive skin also burns quickly, which can be very dangerous’

For toddlers and children, BAD recommends that the first line of defence should always be shade and clothing. (Frugi offers a Kids Swimwear & Towelling range with a high UV protection factor.) Heads are particularly vulnerable at all ages, especially ears, nose, back of neck and eyelids, plus inner corners of the eyes. A broad-brimmed, closely woven hat and T-shirt are vital, as are sunglasses. ‘Sunglasses protect the eyes from UV damage and the highly cancer-prone eyelid skin as well,’ says Dr Kevin Hamill of the University of Liverpool.

MORE: Your most Googled questions about sun cream, answered

BAD recommends ‘slathering’ children in sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going in the sun, again just before heading out, then every two to three hours, and always after swimming or playing sports.

Use an SPF 30 or more for children, with five stars plus the letters UVA in a circle. SPF relates to UVB while the often-overlooked star rating denotes UVA protection. Both types of ray can lead to skin cancer, but a recent survey by Boots Soltan of 1,000 parents with children aged up to 14 revealed that over half do not know what the star rating relates to and 40 per cent believe that UVA damage is short term.

Feature by Sarah Stacey