Little surfer swim girl in rashguard at beach sunscreen skin protection on face

Summer Skin Care for Kids

dr. christine lauren in a columbia white coat

Christine Lauren

Sun, salt, chlorine, sweat, bugs, plants: Summer is the time for exposure to things that makes kids’ skin itch, sting, and burn.

Kids have a knack for finding every skin irritant on earth. 

“Exploring the world means exposure to allergens,” says Christine Lauren, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at ColumbiaDoctors. “In the summer, children are generally out of school and have the opportunity to spend time with family and friends at home, in the park, and at camp.”

We asked her what it takes to protect children’s skin.

How are kids different from adults in terms of skin and skin care?

Kids have thinner skin than adults and their immune systems are not as fully developed, making them more sensitive to sun, allergens, and infections. Since they are outdoors recreationally more than adults and around other children, there is a higher likelihood of bug bites and superficial skin infections.

Is there a golden rule about skin care for kids?

Sun protection is the most important: Minimize sun exposure with a hat, sun-protective clothing, and sunglasses.

What do all parents ask about summer skin care?

All parents ask: Which sunscreen should I use?

I tell them: Be an educated shopper. Do not rely on brand recognition. Read the labels and look for SPF of at least 30 and broad spectrum.

Know when to apply and re-apply. We generally under-apply sunscreen! It's very important to apply sunscreen every two hours and after sweating or being in the water. Re-apply after every 40 minutes if kids are engaging in a physical activity.

What is the best sunscreen for kids?

The best sunscreen is the one you will use.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using mineral sunscreens for sensitive skin, which makes them a good option for younger children. Read the active ingredient to find out which blockers—mineral or chemical—are inside.

  • Mineral sunscreens—also called physical blockers—use UV filters that sit on top of the skin, blocking rays from penetrating the skin’s surface. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the most commonly used and are safe and effective, according to the FDA. Look for sheer zinc, nanosized zinc, or a tinted product if a trace of white residue is an aesthetic concern.
  • Chemical sunscreens use UV filters that transform UV rays when absorbed into the skin. Oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octocrylene are commonly used. Chemical sunscreens tend to be lighter and more sheer and are generally easier to apply. But they can be more irritating to sensitive skin. The significance of absorption of these products is still being studied. No research yet indicates anyone should refrain from sunscreen.

What's the best way to protect kids' skin against irritants?

The first and best treatment is prevention.

Start with non-medicine tactics: Cover as much skin as you can with lightweight clothing, tuck socks into lightweight pants when hiking, and know what to look for when you're outside (poison ivy and the like).

  • Bug bite prevention
    • Look for a bug spray with an EPA-approved active ingredient, like DEET or picardin  
      • DEET is approved by the FDA for use after age 2 months
      • Picardin can be used for ages 2 years and up 
    • Only apply outdoors, in a well-ventilated area, from the neck down
    • Do not spray the face; instead, apply to a parent’s hands and rub hands onto the face
    • Always avoid getting in eyes and mouth
  • Itch reliever
    • Start with non-medicated measures, like a cold compress
    • Topical steroids and antihistimines can be helpful; talk to your doctor
  • Showers and baths (prevention and cure)
    • Chlorine is great for decreasing germs in pools, but can have a drying effect, especially for sensitive skin. Salt water can make you feel itchy. Pollen can trigger allergies. Wash off chlorine, salt water, pollen, and everything else with a shower or bath at the end of the day, then moisturize.

If you or your child has sensitive skin, air conditioning is great because it keeps you cool and less itchy so there’s less exacerbation of skin problems. 

Stay cool and have fun!


Christine Lauren, MD, is a pediatric dermatologist at ColumbiaDoctors and associate professor of dermatology and pediatrics at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.