The Struggle Is Real

How To Get Sunscreen On Kids Who Hate Getting Sunscreened

Ever tried to bathe a cat? It’s almost as impossible.

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For years my son had persistent eczema, which meant that being slathered with various goops was a fact of life. (Now he gets a monthly injection that eradicates the condition, so our lives have become far less goopy. Praise the lord!) And yet he hated this daily process. Once, when he was almost two, we were getting him dressed after a bath — prime lotion-applying time — and though the kid could barely speak, as he wriggled his naked self away, he dug deep to form a semi-sentence, screaming, “DON’T CREAM!” He ran to the corner and hid his face, thinking this made him invisible. The incessant ointmenting had finally broken his brain.

All this to say: You can imagine how much he hated summertime, with its constant need for sunscreen. Most of the time, I only managed to get him zinced up via a series of sloppy walk-by partial applications, swiping a cheek here and an earlobe there before he batted my hand away. It never fully did the job, and invariably I wound up with a faintly tan baby, a sight roughly as unnatural as those AI people with foot-long fingers.

So, I feel for fellow parents who struggle to protect their kids from sunlight. But then, I also feel for kids who don’t much enjoy being smeared in paste or sprayed with eye-burning mist. And yet, smear and spray we must! Sunburns may seem like a shrug-worthy summer rite of passage on the order of mosquito bites or sandy shoes — but childhood sunburns have been definitively linked to later instances of melanoma. That’s not all that surprising, given that 80% of a person’s lifetime sun exposure happens before they become an adult. And not to be all Chicken Little, but research shows that a single childhood sunburn can more than double a person’s chances of developing skin cancer.

But how are you supposed to protect a kid who wriggles out of your grasp as soon as the sunscreen bottle comes out? Luckily, there are a few tricks you can try:

Put them in the stroller or car seat first.

It’s not quite a straitjacket, but it’s about as close as a parent can get. Though you’ll still have to deploy some defensive maneuvers to keep them from flailing their arms or legs, you’ll have their immobility on your side.

Whip out the distraction machine.

That’s right; I’m talking about a phone or tablet. What, you think that’s gross? This is about safety, so any tactic that works is worth it. Further, you can use the device to play a YouTube song about why sunscreen is so important — like this one, for example. Maybe the tune will eventually become Pavlovian: They’ll hear the first few notes and obligingly present their faces for slathering. (Hey, a mom can dream.)

Make them do it.

It’s high time these little freeloaders start pulling their weight, after all. Sure, they’ll do the job poorly because, well, obviously — but they’ll be so focused on their application that they likely won’t notice you covering up the spots they missed. Tools like this kid-friendly applicator sponge can help make the task easier for everyone involved.

Trick them.

How can I put this? Kids are so, so gullible, which means there are ways to apply sunscreen without them even noticing — provided you’re willing to fleece them. (What parent is above a little trickery if it gets the job done?) For example, one blogger suggests putting sunscreen on a cotton swab and using it to “face paint” your child, asking the kid to guess what you’re drawing. Then, the sunscreen gets rubbed in afterward.

Switch the method.

Kids are hyper-sensory little creatures, and sometimes it’s the surprising minutiae that sets them off. For example, if you’re holding your child’s wrist to rub sunscreen up and down their arm, maybe it’s not that they hate the lotion — they just hate having their arm yanked. (Once my child could speak more articulately, he told us that what he really disliked about all that cream was that it was… cold. It had never occurred to us to warm the stuff up in our hands first. D’oh.)

To change up the sensory experience of your sunscreen application, try using a makeup brush or a blending sponge. Not only can doing so improve your coverage level, but it may also be a more pleasant sensation for your kid — and thus, one they’re less likely to run from.

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