Is it more important to limit sunscreen or increase outdoor time?

My sunscreen rational this year is that the safest sunscreens cost too much, as in wildly unrealistically too much for most families, so there’s a need to compromise. Thus, I posted some sunscreen choices that aren’t top of the line safe but that families can afford.

Image by emrank

Not everyone thought this was a good plan:

On Facebook someone noted, “I’m afraid your report will scare people away from the best sunscreens and lull them into thinking it’s okay to make “less safe” choices in this category. Families who aren’t outside as much or who work at avoiding peak hours or who do a great job with sun-protective clothing might be able to afford safer sunscreen options because they don’t use as much.

Another person noted much the same saying, “Clothing, shade and the fact that sunscreen is mostly only necessary during peak hours of 10 – 4 can greatly reduce the costs associated with sunscreen.

I got emails that mimicked the comments above. I don’t think any of the comments were out of line either. I agree that chemicals are icky and I totally get wanting to limit your exposure. Still, from a purely outdoor advocate point of view I don’t agree with other sun protection methods as much as I agree with sunscreen.

Everyone says, “Don’t go outside between 10am and 4pm”

Most people seem to agree that sunscreen is necessary, but everyone still points out that you can greatly limit your associated sunscreen costs if you stay indoors between 10am and 4pm. Logically, I get it. If I keep my son indoors for those 6 hours a day, I can afford to buy the world’s safest sunscreen, because he’d need very little.

I gave some serious consideration to whether or not staying inside all day was a suitable option for my family, and it came down to no. No, I’m not willing to keep my son inside for 6 hours a day. As frequent Growing a Green Family readers may realize, I’m a ‘kids belong outside‘ advocate and with good reason…

Image by Poi Photography

Kids aren’t outside enough as it is

  • Children & Nature Network notes that in a typical week, only 6% of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own.
  • Other research is worse, noting that the average American child spends just four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, while spending more than seven hours daily in front of an electronic screen.

Being outside is healthy for kids

  • Current research shows that we need to change how we act or by 2030 42% of adults will be obese and more than one in five children will be obese by 2020. The CDC, among other health organizations, notes that a lack of physical activity is a key reasons why the childhood obesity epidemic is so out of hand.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics says that proper active outside time helps protect children from future bone problems, heart disease and diabetes.
  • Documented research shows plenty of other benefits of kids being outside, such as lower stress and anxiety levels, reduced ADHD symptoms and improved vision, among others.

Nature kids are healthy for the planet

Wells and Lekies (2006) notes that, “The most direct route to caring for the environment as an adult is participating in “wild nature activities” before the age of 11.” Other studies back this up, but you don’t need a study to tell you this. Kids who spend time outside, building relationships with nature, will be more inclined to protect said nature. You can’t make people care about issues they have zero experience with, it simply doesn’t work. That Kelton survey I mentioned above shows that just 74% of children have visited a national or state park and only 61% have gone hiking.

Image by aka Kath

How much active time do kids need outside?

There’s not a general consensus about how much time kids need outside or even how much physical activity they need. However, it’s wise to note that the majority of kids don’t even get the bare minimum of activity recommended by the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. They state, “Children and adolescents aged 6–17 years should accumulate 1 hour or more of physical activity daily.” In fact, the National Wildlife Federation recently petitioned the Surgeon General about this issue, asking that time outdoors, at minimum, one hour per day, be made a health priority for children.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends school-age children get at least 60 minutes and up to several hours of physical activity per day while avoiding prolonged periods of inactivity.

An increasingly large body of evidence shows that even education should be moved outside, as kids benefit in many ways when expansive outdoor education programs are implemented.

Many researchers fail to nail down the number of outside hours needed for good health, but do say something along the lines of what Dr. Kate Hale, UW-Eau Claire’s Sustainability Fellow said at the presentation, Unplug Your Kids: The Importance of Outdoor Time. In the presentation, Hale said, “A variety of research shows that children who spend significant amounts of time playing outdoors are healthier than those kids who spend their time indoors. The kids who play outdoors play more creatively, have less stress, more active imaginations, are more fit, develop stronger immune systems and have a greater respect for themselves, other and the environment.

Kids need significant time outside

It’s frustrating that no one offers an exact figure for outdoor time, but I think, when you add up the benefits, it’s clear that kids need to spend a significant amount of time outside. It’s tough for kids to get enough physical activity inside, especially with the allure of technology so close at hand indoors.

Most kids, pre-90s spent all day everyday outside during the summer and on weekends, plus had longer recesses when in school. Coincidentally, generations before the 90s didn’t have the same weight and health issues of newer generations. Chattanooga HealthScope points out that the extreme increases in children’s weight happened right around the time when PlayStation and Nintendo 64 came out while The New York Times reports that more and more kids are on medication to treat type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and acid reflux; issues almost unheard of in kids before the 90s.

Overall, significant time outside sounds good to me.

Image by Michael Newton

Can I cut my son’s outside time at all?

Right now my son attends a school that has a fair amount of outdoor play time, often including weekly day-long park trips. He attends outdoor camp every summer and plays in two outdoor soccer games a week. He hikes, sleds, swims and bikes. Often we go on nightly walks and play outdoor basketball in the summer, sometimes four days a week. Beyond the nighttime walks, most of my son’s outdoor time is during the day, meaning he needs shade (impossible at all times), sun protective clothing (not full coverage and not possible every day) or sunscreen.

After thinking about what outdoor time I could cut from my son’s schedule, I realized, there is none. What would I pick? Summer camp? Ban him from school park days? Make him quit soccer? We do make adjustments, such as we’ll go to the basketball court at dusk or hike where it’s shady on really sunny days, but overall, sunscreen is a must in our house because my son simply spends far too many daylight hours outside and due to the pressing issues above, I can’t say I’m sorry about that.

U.S. News spoke with Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, about nature deficit and he said it’s important to remember that, “Yes, there are some dangers outdoors, but there is also great danger of raising a future generation of children under virtual house arrest. ” I agree with Louv. I’ve weighed the less safe sunscreen with virtual house arrest, and the less safe sunscreen always comes out ahead.

As luck would have it…

This year will be less of a compromise at my house, and it can be at your house too. My number one sunscreen pick of the year is Coppertone Kids Pure & Simple Lotion SPF 50. This sunscreen also made EWG’s low-cost sunscreen list, which means it offers stable sun protection that’s free from retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone. It’s not one of the “safest” most trendy natural sunscreens, but it’s still safe, plus ultra low-cost so that really, any family can afford it.

If you compromise down to the sunscreen above, from a pricier “natural” sunscreen, you can feel perfectly okay letting your kids be outside more often. It’s time to make some changes in this country. We could all use more physical activity outside in the fresh air. Kids especially could use some more outdoor adventures.

We shouldn’t let sunscreen issues keep us inside.

What do you think? If you limit outdoor time between 10am and 4pm you can also limit sunscreen use and costs. Do you think we should stick with the recommendations of staying indoors most of the day or get kids outside more often?

All images via Flickr

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  1. Laundry Lady says

    I will admit, I find sunscreen to be a barrier to outside time during peak sun hours, mostly because of the inconvenience of applying it. I have a three year old and she doesn’t exactly hold still to let me put in on well. Plus, with a newborn as well, I’m in a bit of a tough spot. My daughter doesn’t get as much outside time as she should have because she can’t play safely outdoors by herself and coating her in sunscreen and keeping my newborn son covered up (since sunscreen isn’t recommended for newborns) has a very long prep time during which he is sure to need to be fed or have his diaper changed again. I know I need to do better in this regard. I do avoid peak sun hours in the summer more for concern about heat stroke and exhaustion which can happen easily with young kids. When my daughter goes out after 5 to play I don’t require more sunscreen. I mostly only apply it during peak hours. I know ideally it should be applied more often but we all have the compromises we need to make. Using sunscreen multiple times a day just for a few minutes outside here and there would definitely be a major detriment to outside time for my daughter. I think in this case the benefits of outside time outweigh the risks of sun exposure during non-peak hours. Plus, we try to make use of wide brimmed hats and lightweight clothes that cover more of the body whenever possible.

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