Listen to Austin 360 Radio

A guide to sunscreen and sun protection for your family

Nicole Villalpando, Raising Austin

Staff Writer
Austin American-Statesman

We're out in the sun a lot in summer around the pool, playing basketball, at amusement parks, at summer camp.

Though most of us think about grabbing the sunscreen on the way to the pool, we might not think about it for a walk to the park or a driveway basketball game.

We also might stare at the sunscreen aisle at our local store and scratch our heads. What does "broad spectrum" mean? Why does it now say "water resistant" rather than "water proof"? And, is there really a difference between SPF 15 and 70, between "kids" and regular?

We brought our questions to a local dermatologist, a pediatrician, a researcher at Coppertone and the Food and Drug Administration. We learned we were doing some things right, but a lot wrong.

Here's our guide to keeping your family sun safe this summer:

Sunscreen and summer, the perfect pairing?

You can get burned any time of the year. We think about sunscreen in summer because people tend to be out more and around the highly reflective surfaces of the pool or other water.

Dr. Lakshmi Atkuri, a pediatrician at Scott & White Clinic — Round Rock, warns that you can get just as burned in sun as in the snow. "Cloudy days don't matter," she says. "About 80 percent of UV rays still get through. You still can get burned."

Some sun is goodfor the body, right?

Yes, sunlight can help the body make vitamin D, but Dr. Samantha Hill, a pediatric dermatologist at Specially for Children and Dell Children's Medical Center, says people need fewer than 10 minutes of indirect sunlight a day to get enough Vitamin D. Vitamin D is also found in milk and cereals or can be supplemented with vitamins if someone doesn't have enough.

Why should you care about sunscreen?

In the past 30 years, we've really come to understand that exposure to the sun and skin cancer are linked.

The American Cancer Society estimates that one American dies every hour of skin cancer. This year about 76,250 new cases of malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, will be diagnosed.

One blistering sunburn as a child or in the teen years more than doubles a person's chances of developing melanoma later in life.

My child tans, so I don't need to worry, right?

Wrong. It is true that people who have the following risk factors have to be more diligent: pale skin; blond, red or light brown hair; a family member who has had skin cancer; or have had skin cancer themselves.

Tanning is the skin's natural protection against the sun, and if your natural coloring is darker, you might have more protection. That slight advantage does not outweigh the damage that can be caused, Hill says.

The UVA rays that cause the skin to tan can be just as damaging or even more damaging as UVB light, which causes skin to burn. UVB light damages the surface layers of the skin; UVA goes deeper and does more long-term damage.

"The long-term consequences of UVA light don't distinguish between if you burn or tan," Atkuri says.

Hill wants people to think about the difference between a burn and a tan this way: When the skin is tanning, it's crying for help. When the skin is burned, it cannot cry anymore because the skin cells have died.

My child has a bad burn, now what?

The damage to the skin is done, but you can help avoid infection and relieve pain. For a normal burn, you can apply some soothing lotion to help moisturize the skin. Choose something bland like Aquaphor or petroleum jelly if the burn is bad. For a second-degree burn — one with a blister — do not pop the blister. Have a cool bath or apply cool compresses on the burn itself. You can give Ibuprofen to try to reduce the swelling and the pain. Hydrocortisone cream also can help.

If the blister pops or the skin beneath it appears wet, see a doctor to rule out infection.

Hill and Atkuri don't see a lot of these severe burns, but occasionally the area can become infected and need antibiotics.

What is this SPF and what does it mean?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. In theory, if your skin will burn after 10 minutes and you use an SPF of 30, the sunscreen would extend your skin's natural protection 30 times more than bare skin alone, says Patricia Agin, Coppertone's scientific affairs leader at its Solar Research Center. She studies the effectiveness of sunscreen in the lab and in real-world situations with kids and their parents on the beaches of Florida. SPF, she says, is "really a ballpark measure of the power of protection."

You also can think of SPF as the percentage of UV rays it protects against: SPF 50 blocks 98 percent; SPF 30, 96 percent; and SPF 15, 93.7 percent.

Which SPF is right for our family?

The FDA recommends sunscreens with SPFs of 15 to 50. It has recently changed how sunscreens have to be labeled. Now you'll see something called SPF 50+, because it has determined that there's not a really big difference in sunscreens once you get above SPF 50. Agin doesn't agree and says there are some cases — people who work outdoors — where that extra margin of protection might be helpful.

Both Hill and Atkuri recommend an SPF of at least 30.

What's ‘broad spectrum'?

This is part of the new labeling required by the end of this year by the FDA. "Broad spectrum" means the lotion or spray protects against both UVA and UVB rays. That's what you want in a sunscreen.

Why do bottles now say ‘water resistant' instead of ‘waterproof'?

There's no such thing as truly "waterproof," Hill says. Now the FDA is requiring manufacturers to label it "water resistant" as well as give the number of minutes that it is considered "water resistant." This way parents will know that if you see a "water resistant (40 minutes)," they can expect that after 40 minutes, that sunscreen might have floated away.

You want a water resistant sunscreen especially if you are in the water, around the water or sweating (when in Texas are we not sweating?).

What's the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?

Sunblock will have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in it. It prevents the UV rays from penetrating into the skin. It can be used by children younger than 6 months, but check with your pediatrician first. Keeping babies that young out of the sun and covered will be a better option than the sunblock.

Sunscreen doesn't block the UV rays, but it changes them once they hit the skin to make the rays not as harmful.

What's the difference between sunscreen for kids and adults?

There are subtle differences in the formulations, Agin says, and specifically the products that are for children have been tested with children. The sunscreens for children are more attune to delicate skin, she says.

The differences between adult and kids sunscreen might not matter with your children, but the ones that say "babies" are significantly different enough to matter for younger children, Atkuri says.

Can I use regular sunscreen for the face?

Yes, but not for the eyes or lips. Those areas get covered best with a sunscreen stick made for the face. Sunscreen that is made for the face might feel better on your face than those for the body and some people might have an adverse reaction to sunscreen for the body on their face. If you're using a spray form, remember to spray the sunscreen into your hands and then apply it to your face.

How often and how much sunscreen should I apply?

This is where we all mess up the most. It doesn't matter how much SPF your sunscreen has if you forget to reapply it.

The general rule is apply a sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside. Then reapply every hour to two hours. If you're at the pool, you should reapply every time you towel off as well because you'll be removing the sunscreen with your towel.

An average size adult with a bathing suit on should use 1 ounce or a shot glass full of sunscreen every time.

Lotion rather than a spray is easier to see how much you're using, but with the spray you should be able to feel that you have covered the entire area well. When in doubt, use more.

If you have older children who are applying their own sunscreen, double check them. Atkuri says her own children, ages 13 and 15, often miss the backs of their legs, their shoulders near their armpits and their backs.

Also, when you're applying sunscreen, you want it to be to dry skin, unless it's the new kind that can be sprayed on wet skin and says so on the label.

Better than sunscreen, avoid the sun

All of our experts recommend avoiding the times of day when the UV rays are worst: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

If you have to go out, cover up. Some new clothing is made to be protective and will have a UPF level (ultraviolet protection factor) on the label. Even if you don't buy special clothing, all clothing has some protection. A white T-shirt has a natural 3 SPF. Hold up your clothing to the light and if you cannot see through it, you'll get a decent level of protection. If not, put sunscreen underneath it.

Don't forget hats and sunglasses as well. Broad-rimmed hats are better than ball caps because they protect the ears and the back of the neck. Sunglasses should say that they block 99 percent of the UVA and UVB rays. Those that wrap around the eyes are better than those with just front protection.

Make sun protection fun for kids

The EPA has online games and quizzes that kids can take to help them learn about sun protection. Go to

Contact Nicole Villalpando at; 912-5900. Twitter: @mama dramaaustin