How to Keep Kids Safe from Sunburns at the Beach

Christine Sarkis, July 23, 2015
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    Want to see a blank stare? Tell a two-year-old they need sunscreen to reduce their skin cancer risk later in life. Kids, especially young kids, are terrible at risk assessment, and even worse at staying still for reapplications of sunscreen every 60 to 90 minutes. So while the sunscreen is important, it shouldn't be your only line of defense for small kids.

    Happily, there are now many new and better ways to shield small, wiggly kids from dangerous rays. On a recent family vacation, I put nine such products to the test, pitting my own two small children against the strong Hawaiian sun. With the help of these sun-protective products, we returned happy and sunburn free.

    Board Shorts

    Board shorts—longer-than-average swim trunks—have been protecting surfers' legs for years. Adding a few inches of length protects non-surfers, too—from the sun. Longer board shorts in smaller sizes have come onto the scene in recent years, offering kids better sun protection and a cool surfer look.

    Snapper Rock's Board Shorts offer to-the-knee, UPF 50+ coverage in cool, character-free prints. The company makes three types of board shorts—board shorts, true board shorts, and pool-boy board shorts. I opted for the board shorts because of the longer length and kid-friendly details like an elastic waistband and drawstring. My three-year-old wore them comfortably as both shorts and swim wear.

    Swim Tights

    Maybe the Victorians had it right when it came to swimsuits: More is better. For kids who are spending hours in the water—diligently splashing away every last bit of waterproof sunscreen—a better first line of defense is UPF-rated swimwear with more coverage. Swim leggings for babies, toddlers, and kids offer just that.

    Though I brought two swim suits for my one-year-old, she ended up wearing Coolibar's toddler Swim Tights nearly every time she swam. (Coolibar also makes swim tights for girls and boys). The UPF rating (the measurement of how much of the sun's UV radiation passes through a particular fabric) of 50, and a snug but comfortable fit, spared me the impossible task of applying sunscreen to legs in constant motion.

    They had the added benefit of protecting her knees from the concrete pool deck when she tipped over—a common event given her current belly-centric weight distribution. They were also quick-drying, so putting them out in the sun during naptime meant she could wear them in the morning at the beach and in the afternoon at the pool.

    Rash Guards

    Tiny shoulders are like sunflowers—they somehow always seem to be facing the sun. My three-year-old son was far too busy swimming with his cousins to submit to extensive sunscreen shellackings, so I created a win-win situation with rash guards from Circo and Gymboree. The short-sleeve version protected his shoulders, back, and chest, and we kept a long-sleeve rash guard on hand for midday swims as well.

    Over the last few years, these swim-shirts have come into their own, and any company that makes swim gear is likely to offer an array of rash guards for boys and girls. However, be aware that many are double-layered. That's great for sun protection, but it can trap sand and make lighter-colored rash guards appear dotted with mold, so opt for a darker color if you're headed to the beach.

    SPF Shirts

    Even when you're not at the beach or pool, sun protection is key. And regular clothing doesn't always offer the coverage you'd expect. In fact, a typical white cotton shirt has a UPF of about seven. So, underwhelming.

    Patagonia's Polarized Graphic Tees come in five rugged-cool designs. The soft shirts wear well (my tester was rigorous) and deliver 20-UPF sun protection. They're also adaptable to land and water; it looks and wears like a regular T-shirt, but also dries fast (and still delivers great sun protection) when wet.


    Let it first be said that some kids just won't wear hats. But hats do offer a great line of defense against the sun's rays, protecting sensitive noses, ears, foreheads, and cheeks. So if the sun-kissed kid in your life is a natural accessorizer—or if you can convince them (by bribe or distraction) to wear one—investing in a comfortable hat with good coverage is a key skin-protection strategy.

    Sunday Afternoon's Kids' Play Hat was a hit with the one-year-old and protected not just her face but her ears and the back of her neck. And since the back drapes (rather than there being a structured bill around the whole hat) she was able to wear it comfortably in a stroller.

    The chin strap kept her from being able to take it off easily on her own, and anchored it to her head in the wind. It was lightweight and didn't make her head terribly sweaty, and when she wore it into the pool it dried quickly. Best of all: She was happy to wear it for hours on end, something she would be unwilling to do if it weren't actually comfortable.


    In a world full of disposable children's products, pint-sized sunglasses are the worst offenders. They're flimsy, uncomfortable, offer little real sun protection, and seem designed to be broken or lost immediately (which they usually are). But eye protection for kids is key: Children's eyes can't filter UV light as well as adults', and are more prone to lasting damage.

    Babiators offer an interesting solution to this quandary, delivering real sun protection and a guarantee against loss and breakage. The polarized sunglasses (available with and without polarization) deliver 100 percent UVA and UVB protection. They're made of flexible rubber, and they effectively withstood rigorous "testing" from my one- and three-year-olds, who took turns wearing the cool aviator-style shades.

    And if the sunglasses break or get lost within a year of purchase, Babiators will send you another pair free (as long as you've registered them within 30 days of purchase).

    Sun Shade

    The downside of traveling with small kids who can't manage their own carry-ons: checked luggage. The upside of checked luggage: You can travel with bulkier items, since you're not trying to pack light. Case in point: I packed a Coleman Hatteras Fast Pitch Shade with Drink Sleeve in my checked luggage. It packs small, sets up easily (it took us about four minutes each time), and delivers 31-square feet of shade. That's enough room to shade two to three adults while leaving space for kids to play in the sand under the structure's shade awning.

    If you're staying poolside, or never going to stray from a well-equipped resort beach, you don't need to pack your own shade. But if you're planning on exploring more beaches—and in Hawaii, all beaches are public; who wouldn't want to take maximum advantage of that?— shade will be key. Not only will it keep kids out of the sun, but it offers everyone a cool spot to relax. A zippered back wall allows for cross ventilation and, bonus, the tent has a removable three-can insulated drinks sleeve.

    Poncho Towels

    Fending off the post-swimming chills, offering sun coverage for kids who want to take their rash guards off as soon as they're out of the pool—a wearable towel comes in handy in all sorts of beach-vacation scenarios.

    In between dips, I outfitted my one-year-old with the Sun Protection Poncho Towel from Cuddledry. The British import (now available in the U.S. through Amazon) is made of an incredibly soft cotton-bamboo blend that dries kids quickly and feels light. A hood and fabric rated UPF 50 keeps them safe from the sun, and snaps under the arm holes give the poncho enough structure that they can wear it for play (or eating, in my kids' case).

    Hooded Towels

    In between dips, kids often lounge in towels. So why not add some sunburn-busting coverage to this down time? Hooded towels are particularly effective at shading heads and shoulders, two of the most common burn zones.

    For swimming breaks, One Step Ahead's Hooded Swimming Towel delivers drying action and sun protection. It's lightweight and packs small, so it's perfect for a beach bag. It dries out fast between uses and, unlike many thin towels, actually does the job of drying skin. The towel was a hit with kids in the three-to-11 range, perhaps because the hood taps into kids' superhero tendencies.

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    (Photo: Christine Sarkis)