Parents know the power of sunscreen and remember to slather on and repeat. Kids? Not so much.
There’s a lot at stake as the majority of skin damage and excessive sun often comes in childhood, so it’s a really critical period for sun protection, said Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a Seattle pediatrician who writes the Seattle Mama Doc blog.
“The best sunscreen out there is the one that’s used early and often,” Swanson told TODAY Parents.
She recommended using mineral, rather than chemical sunscreen -- with ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide -- and looking for an SPF over 30. Sunscreen is usually OK for infants older than 6 months, she noted. Doctors continue to study the best sun-protection practices for babies and toddlers.
Here are 10 tips for putting and keeping sunscreen on children:
1. Before applying, consider other ways to protect skin
Dressing your child in sun-safe clothing will minimize the amount of skin you have to cover with sunscreen, which will reduce the struggle from the start.
“I just want families to know that using UV protective clothing and things like hats, and using the benefit of the shade is a really powerful way to protect children from radiation from the sun,” Swanson said.
“Then, in areas of their body you can’t cover with UV protective clothing, that’s when we think, yeah, we want you to use sunscreen and use it judiciously.”
2. Make it a ritual right from the start
Swanson has never struggled with getting her two sons, who are 6 and 8, to wear their swim shirts. They’ve never gone swimming outside without them, so they don’t know anything different, she said.
Kids should understand early on: “The privilege of getting to do this fun activity comes with the responsibility of taking care of our skin while we do it,” she said.
“This is like everything in life, like brushing our teeth … these are just good habits that we can create.”
3. Don’t wait until the last minute to apply
When you arrive at the beach and kids can see the water, the last thing they’ll want to do is hang around for a sunscreen application. Make sure they’re protected and ready to go.
Shell Roush, a mom of three boys who lives near the beach in in Jacksonville, North Carolina, has perfected the routine. The family visits the seashore so often that she buys sunscreen in bulk and the cream always goes on before the fun begins.
“We apply it at home, right before we leave, out on the porch. That way, the kids can hit the water as soon as we get to the beach without them having to anxiously wait for their sunscreen to be applied, plus it gives the sunscreen time to dry before they get wet,” Roush, who writes The Soccer Moms blog, said.
For sunscreen to work best, apply it 30 minutes before exposure to the sun, Swanson said. In an ideal world, you’re in an indoor environment when you apply, she added.
4. Apply when they’re strapped in their car seat
This approach can make the process easier with infants and toddlers.
“Toddlers, I think, are the hardest. They’re just squirmy and wormy and you fight and there are autonomy issues going on at that age,” Swanson said.
5. Make it fun
New York City mom Lyla Gleason says she and her 5-year-old daughter both hate wearing sunscreen, but she’s come up with a few ways to make it cooler.
“Last year, I used sunscreen with glitter in it and my girly girl daughter was so excited to have glittery skin, she never complained,” said Gleason, who writes the Globetrotting Mommy blog.
“For her face, I tell her to make a puffer fish face and that will usually entertain her long enough for me to apply sunscreen. I also think it might even be a little easier with her checks puffed out.”
Gleason’s daughter will also gladly apply sunscreen if she can put it on her mom, too. It takes a long time to finish and Gleason sometimes ends up “over slathered,” but it gets the job done, she said.
TODAY Parenting Team contributor Amanda Mushro likes to create a family “sunscreen train,” with kids applying it on themselves, as if playing a game.
6. With older kids, appeal to their vanity
The most powerful strategy for reluctant teens is not around cancer risk and scary scars from melanoma, but around vanity and appearances, Swanson said.
“UVA rays change the elasticity of your skin… you’re going to get more wrinkly and you’re going to look older, faster,” she suggested telling teens. “I want you to be as beautiful as you are for as long as you can.”
7. Consider spray
There have been some concerns about the inhalation risks of spray sunscreen, but that being said, Swanson noted they’re convenient, easy to use, and may encourage families to reapply sunscreen in regular intervals.
“If parents really like it for their kids’ limbs, back, belly, chest and extremities, I can’t actually tell them not to use them,” Swanson said.
“Have your kids close their eyes and their mouths and hold their breath while you apply it. Never spray your child’s face.”
Just be sure to run it in!
8. Make sure you have enough
The key to having sunscreen stay in the right place is to use enough. You need an ounce of sunscreen to cover someone’s whole body, so if you have a 3-ounce bottle, it won't last for a whole day once you start to reapply, Swanson said.
"Imagine a layer of Saran wrap over all those surfaces of the skin," she noted.
9. Reapply strategically
“I usually time the reapplication with a snack so that it has time to dry before they dive into the water again,” Roush said.
10. Be prepared for impromptu fun in the sun
“When we travel, I like to throw a sunscreen stick and sunscreen wipes in my bag in case we end up in a sprinkler park or I see her face turning red,” Gleason said.
Note: This story was originally published on July 7, 2015 and updated on May 27, 2016.