Spring is here and so is the sun!

Many people rejoice with the return of the warm sun after a cold, gray winter. But with the spring and summer sun comes the need for extra vigilance about sun safety and biting insects. How can sunscreen and insect repellent be used together safely and effectively?

People usually focus on sun safety while at the pool, the beach or on vacation, but sunburns can happen any time children are outside. A few serious sunburns as a child can increase the risk of skin cancer later in life. 

Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun is the most preventable cause of skin cancer. Although there are three types of UV rays, UVA and UVB rays are the two of most concern. UVA light rays reach the earth’s surface and can cause damage beyond just the top layer of skin. UVB rays are less common at the earth’s surface because they are absorbed by the ozone layer, but they can still damage skin.

How can children be protected from sunburn?

  • Stay in the shade to prevent sunburn, especially during the midday hours when UV rays are the most harmful (10 a.m. – 3 p.m.). An alternative is to plan indoor activities during these hours.
  • Wear a hat. Wide-brimmed hats that cover the face, scalp, ears, and neck offer the most protection. If another type of hat is used, such as a baseball hat, protect exposed skin with sunscreen.
  • Wear child safe, shatter resistant sunglasses. Look for styles that wrap around and block close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Cover exposed skin. Wear long pants and shirts with long sleeves when possible. Choose fabrics that are tightly woven and loose fitting for the best protection. Dry clothing offers more protection than wet clothing.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) between 15 and 50. Sunscreen should be applied liberally to all exposed skin thirty minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours.

Within as little as fifteen minutes, the sun can damage unprotected skin. Remember, sunburns can happen on cloudy, cool days too. The skin may only look a little pink at first, but it can take up to twelve hours to see the full effects of the sun’s rays. But which sunscreen offers the best protection and is also safe to use on children? With so many choices, it can be overwhelming to choose a product. Not all sunscreens are created equal and some are safer for use on children than others.

Here are some hints to help choose an effective, safer sunscreen:

  • Avoid spray (aerosol) sunscreens. Inhalation of these products may pose serious health risks. It is also possible to not apply enough or miss spots.
  • Read the label!
    • Look for sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredient. These chemicals are generally safer for children because they aren’t absorbed into the skin.
    • Avoid products that contain the chemicals oxybenzone, octinoxate (octylmethoxycinnamate) or retinyl palmitate/retinol/vitamin A. All have higher toxicity concerns associated with them.
    • Follow all label directions and warnings about the application of the specific product being used.

Some sunscreen products also contain an insect repellent. Although they may sound like a good idea, avoid using these combination products! Sunscreen should be applied every two hours, but insect repellent should not be applied that often. Doing so can result in an overexposure to the chemicals in the repellent, which may then lead to health problems. But with biting insect populations soaring during the warmer months, and West Nile Virus (WNV), Lyme disease, and other diseases being transmitted by insects, it’s very important to also protect yourself and children from insect bites.

But how can sunscreen and insect repellent be used together safely and effectively?

Insect repellents are pesticides, which are registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And just like sunscreen, not all insect repellents are created equal. Some repellents are safer to use on children than others.

  • Choose a product that comes in lotion, pump or towelette form. Avoid sprays (aerosols).
  • Read the label!  Choose a product registered by the EPA. Safer active ingredients to look for:
    • DEET – select products with 10 – 30 percent DEET depending on age of child and length of time they are going to be outside.
    • Picaridin
    • IR3535
  • Wash repellent-coated skin when returning inside. Wash clothing with repellent on it in a separate laundry load if possible.

Oil of lemon eucalyptus (not the same as natural lemon eucalyptus oil), and its synthetic version, PMD (para-menthane-3,8-diol) are two additional active ingredients found in insect repellents that are considered safer for use on children. However, products containing either of these chemicals should not be used on children under the age of three years.

How insect repellents are applied can also make a difference in their effectiveness and safety. When applying sunscreen in addition to repellent, apply the sunscreen first. If a child needs insect repellent, adults should apply the repellent to their hands first and then spread it on the child’s exposed skin. Avoid applying repellent to the child’s hands, around the eyes and mouth, and use sparingly around the ears. Do not let children handle or apply insect repellent themselves. Other helpful application tips include:

  • Apply repellents to exposed skin and/or clothing according to label directions. Don’t apply repellent under clothing.
  • Apply a light application to exposed skin and/or clothing. Don’t saturate.

Always read and follow all label directions and precautions on sunscreen and insect repellent products. Some products have specific warnings regarding the use on children. For more information about sunscreen and insect repellents, please see the references listed below. Share this information with parents. Encourage them to send a “summer protection kit” in with their child. The kit may include items such as sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, and insect repellent.

For more information on preventing pests and keeping your home, school, or child care healthy and safe, visit the website of the Pennsylvania Integrated Pest Management Program. Like us on Facebook. Twitter users can follow us at handle @PAIPM.


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Spring is here and so is the sun!

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