Skipping Sunscreen - How Bad?

Filed under: Health

"Is that sunscreen in your hand?" Photo courtesy of

For some families, this delicious weather also brings a delightful daily battle: Child vs. Sunscreen-Applier! There is nothing like a long, drawn out war-by-the-door over sunscreen application, am I right?

So when I got this question, I was eager to find out the answer: "How bad is it to leave off the sunscreen sometimes? I mean, if my kids run out the door for a few hours to play in the late afternoon, is that fine? Isn't vitamin D good for them?"

To find out, I called Dr. Fred Kemp, a dermatologist in Illinois at the Dreyer Medical Clinic, who often sees kids and families in his practice.

So, how wrong is it if the children run out the door without the 'screen now and again, I asked. Dr. Kemp was not supportive of this idea.

"Late afternoon is not as bad as mid-day," he says. "But it's better to use sunscreen all of the time. Sun damage is cumulative and the more you get, the more aging changes will develop over the years and there is also a greater likelihood to develop skin cancer." Dr. Kemp agrees that not all situations are equal -- fair skinned children are more at risk than those with darker skin, and that sun damage is more likely if you live closer to the equator.

But all risk factor talk aside, Kemp says you really should put sunscreen on the kids every day. Here are some tips for making that joyous activity less of a smackdown:

Make it a routine. On school days we do this and it really helps; every day we: brush hair, brush teeth, wash face, apply sunscreen. Remember Pavlov? They may not love it but at least they know what's coming.

Try the pump. Kemp recommends pump sunscreens (which are sometimes more pricey) because they're so much easier (and faster) to apply.

Be playful. If you're 'screening up more than one child, line them up and do their body parts assembly-style (this is also a lot easier with the pump sprays). You can also let your child "help" you, as long as you go over those same parts again yourself since kids tend to miss spots (leaving you with a tiny handprint-shaped burn outline, not that I've ever seen that personally of course).

Don't forget the scalp. A burn on the hair-part is no fun. And Kemp says if kids have a short haircut, the sun can penetrate those little locks leaving your child with a full-head burn (ow).

So: How bad to skip the sunscreen? It's not a good idea, according to Kemp, who knocked down all the theories about vitamin D ("they'll get enough through the sunscreen or if needed you can supplement with vitamins") and "it's just this once" (making it a habit sets them up for a lifetime of smart sun-protection). So there you have it. Sunscreen: On. Have a sunny day!

Have you had a less-than-perfect parenting moment and you're wondering, "How bad"? Send it to and it could get addressed in this column. If you know a smart way to get kids to wear sunscreen without complaining, please share in the comments!

Sabrina Weill is editor-in-chief of

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.