Abby's Road: Sunscreen has long-term benefits, short-term pitfalls

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Trying to apply sunscreen to a child is like trying to pick up a greased watermelon that moves like a slinky and protests like a march on Washington.

I have had seven years to hone my technique. I always feel as if it is my first time introducing SPF to someone who cannot spell SPF. Experience has taught me nothing, except the lesson that I have learned nothing from my experience.

If you want to test the reflexes of any child, grab something that looks like sunscreen. You’ll think you’re witnessing a magic trick. That child, who seconds before looked like a child, suddenly looks like an angry cat, or a caffeinated martial artist, or a panicked hummingbird.

You tell them that the quicker they cooperate, the quicker they are done. You tell them that if they stand still, you’ll give them a reward. You tell them that if they don’t stop moving by the time you count to three, they’re going back to bed until tomorrow, when you’ll have to try the whole thing all over again.

Nothing works. They twist their face away, crouch down on their haunches, or simply run. You find yourself doing laps around the backyard with a naked toddler, tears streaming down both of your faces.

The only piece of this riddle that is solved for you is the level of protection. Children’s sunscreen is offered in SPFs of 50 or above. The only option is to shield the sun’s rays with the dermatological equivalent of a haz-mat suit.

The question is simply one of application.

It seems like an easy question to answer: Take the sunscreen, and apply it to exposed skin. But that’s not the answer. That’s the joke.

Children’s sunscreen comes in three forms: spray, lotion or stick. The spray is incredibly easy to apply. It only requires a child, preferably undressed, standing in a “T” formation and holding her breath. Thus positioned, that child is ready for you to spray her entire surface.

The single drawback of the spray is the oily slick it leaves on the floor. The first time I used it on my daughter, I almost broke my neck when I walked by her post-application. It was as if she had disappeared, replaced with the world’s largest, most slippery banana peel.

There’s another drawback, too. The FDA has been studying the risks of spray sunscreens since 2011. Apparently, the list is so long that they haven’t had time to finish writing it yet.

Other consumer advocacy groups warn that children inhale dangerous chemicals floating from can to body. Kids tend to squirm during sunscreen application, you see. And to emit open-mouthed howls, followed by an intake of breath to prepare for the next howl. But you already knew that – that’s why you’d bought spray sunscreen in the first place.

That leaves you with the lotion or the stick, which is much like leaving you with nothing at all.

For the uninitiated, the sun stick looks like Chapstick on steroids. But it’s still just a stick, and it cannot be used to apply sunscreen to an entire body. At best, it can be used to apply sunscreen to a face. Or maybe just a nose.

Nevertheless, you spend twice as much time wielding a stick as you would trying to slather lotion onto a scrunched up face. That’s because the stick leaves no trace. By the time you get to the forehead, you forget whether you did the chin. So you operate on a continuous loop around the face until the school bus arrives, or the pool closes, or you develop carpel tunnel syndrome.

Finally, there’s the lotion. The blessing and curse of the lotion is that it is a thick, white substance. It is easy to spot, but difficult to rub in and eventually lands everywhere within touching distance. None of the hand towels in my bathrooms, articles of clothing in my laundry room, or hairs on my head need ever worry about sunburn.

There are drugstore aisles full of alternatives. There are Facebook threads devoted to sunscreen advice. Still, there is no answer.

It’s enough to make you pray for rain.

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Abby Diaz grew up in Falmouth and lives there again, because that’s how life works. She blogs at Follow Abby on Twitter: @AbbyDiaz1.