5 Sensory-Friendly Sunscreen Tips

toddler wearing sunscreen

Have you been daydreaming this summer about a sunscreen booth that automatically coats your kids with the protective goo? Sunscreen (or SunScream as my kids like to call it) application can be a very unpleasant sensory experience for some children. If your child squirms and protests sunscreen application while you try to reason with them about the long-term merits of protecting their largest organ, it can be helpful to understand the different ways that sunscreen can be unpleasant for children, especially those who have sensory processing differences:

  • The greasy texture of the cream on the skin can register as painful or unbearable for someone who experiences tactile defensiveness (a sensory processing issue that causes certain textures to feel very uncomfortable).
  • Unpleasant taste, overwhelming smell, stinging eyes or nose 
  • Harsh ingredients in some sunscreens may irritate sensitive skin
  • Lack of control when having someone else apply it
  • Stray hairs getting trapped in the cream can feel very uncomfortable 
  • Light touch may be very uncomfortable for some kids with sensory issues

This article reviews 5 easy ways to make sunscreen application more bearable!

    1. Decrease the amount of sunscreen required with UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) clothing. Long sleeve rash guards while swimming or long sleeve UPF shirts while doing other outdoor activities greatly decreases the surface area of skin that must be covered with sunscreen. The highest UPF rating is 50+, meaning only 2% of UV radiation can penetrate the fabric. Longer swim trunks or swim skirts can also help decrease the amount required, though for long days at the beach, it’s best to still apply sunscreen on the thighs as clothing will shift around if they’re sitting on the beach for long periods of time. Coolibar is a great brand for UPF kids’ clothing. Wide brimmed hats that shade the face and neck are also helpful (SunDay brand hats are also great!). When possible, try to plan time outdoors to avoid the highest UV exposure times between 10 am and 4 pm, or stick to shaded areas if you will be out during these high exposure times. 
    2. Focus on Vulnerable Areas. It’s helpful to understand which parts of our bodies are most at risk for sun damage and require more heavy duty sunscreen. Coating the skin in these sensitive areas fully with a layer of sunscreen cream or lotion is the best way to assure full coverage, as sunscreen sprays provide a lighter coating and application may be spotty. The following areas have more year-round exposure to the sun, and require the fullest protection:
      • Face including lips
      • Scalp
      • Ears
      • Chest
      • Neck 
      • Back of hands
    3. Let your child help. Part of the discomfort of sunscreen can be due to the lack of control a child feels having it applied. Once your child is old enough to safely apply sunscreen (without getting it in their eyes & mouth), it is helpful to allow them to get involved. They can start by applying it to arms and legs, and eventually apply it to their face while looking in a mirror. For those kids or areas that need some help, it can help to narrate what you’re about to do so that they are prepared (“now, I’m going to put some sunscreen on your cheeks and nose”, etc). For areas that require your help, or kids who are too young to safely help, using firmer pressure while applying can make it more bearable for the child. It also helps to pull back long hair into a ponytail or braids to avoid that yucky sensation of hair trapped in sunscreen.
    4. Choose Safe Ingredients To Avoid Skin Irritation.  The active ingredients in sunscreens fall into one of two main categories: mineral (zinc oxide, titanium oxide) or chemical (oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, etc).  Most sunscreens use either mineral or chemical agents, but some products use a combination of both, so it’s important to read labels carefully. Many of the chemical ingredients used in sunscreens contain skin allergens as well as toxins that can affect the reproductive system. Due to these safety concerns and skin irritation risk with chemical ingredients, mineral sunscreens are preferable.
    5. Have a variety of sunscreens to make the job easier. Though it may sound like more work to juggle a variety of products, it will make your sunscreen application much easier and quicker. It helps to keep them all together in a bag. 
    • SPF lip balm to avoid having to coat the lips with sunscreen (ex. Goddess Garden SPF 30 Sunscreen Lipbalm)
    • Heavy duty cream for the vulnerable areas mentioned above. (ex. Thinksport kids SPF 50)
    • Stick – can be used as an alternative for the face in kids who cannot tolerate a cream. The solid form is more tolerable to some kids, and it’s easier for them to apply themselves. (ex. Babo Botanicals Baby Face Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 50)
    • Spray – can be used on arms & legs to quickly apply to large areas that aren’t as vulnerable. It’s important to note that sunscreen sprays are somewhat controversial, as there’s some evidence they can irritate the lungs and may not provide full protection from the sun since spraying them on may lead to gaps in coverage. However, for some families they make sense to use as they are much more tolerable for the child.  To use them safely, apply far away from the face and quickly smooth them into skin after applying for full coverage. Alternatively, you can spray it on your hand and then apply it to your child’s skin; even this method is much faster than applying a cream. (ex. Goddess Garden Sport Mineral Sunscreen Spray SPF 30)

Hopefully these tips will make your sunscreen application routine easier until someone invents a portable, pop-up, automatic sunscreen booth! 

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