Sensitive to Sunscreen? Tips and Tricks for a sensory sunsmart!

Many children can’t stand the feel of sunscreen slathered on their ears, nose and cheeks.  Cold, wet, sticky and sometimes itchy – sunscreen application is one of the summer challenges for many parents as they wrestle slippery, wriggling little people into the sun-smart recommendations.

Summer Protective Attire

To avoid or minimize sunscreen battles, explore a variety of clothing options with SPF protection such as rash guards  and hats.  Long sleeve rash guards offer the most protection, and even if you go with the short sleeve option, there is less skin that is going to need sunscreen slathered upon it.  A snug rash guard may offer a bit of proprioceptive input as well. Hats with a nice brim on them can keep the ears and face protected when not in the water.  However, as some children just can’t stand a hat on their little heads – attempting to arrange play activities in the shade may be an alternative option.

Choosing a Sunscreen – roll on, spray, zinc or light touch?

Considering your child’s sensory needs before selecting an application method is key. Choose options for sun protection that will match your child’s needs. If a child gets upset with sounds nobody notices, then the spray bottle of sun screen lotion might not be your best option, considering a roll on application may be more beneficial.

Spray Sunscreen Lotion

If you opt to go with the spray/aerosol bottle route and if your child is able to follow directions – before spraying, have them close their eyes and mouth, hold their breath and then spray in a light burst.  Immediately after spraying, encourage them to run 5-10 feet away before they can breathe again – turn it into a fun game by having them run to get a fun toy and bring it back.  If your child is not able to follow these directions, away from the children spray the sunscreen on your fingertip and dab on their ears, nose and cheeks.  Spray sunscreens are thinner than most lotions and may be more tolerable to those who are sensory defensive.


Trialling a lotion that has less “yucky” residue (think “Light touch”) and are less offensive to our children who are sensory sniffers may encourage a more positive experience tolerating the sunscreen.

Some kids are bothered by the smell of sunscreen. Try a few different kinds and see if one is more tolerable than others. Alternatively, rub a little bit of a favourite-smelling chapstick on the tip of the child’s nose to override the smell of the sunscreen.

Thinner, less sticky, non-smelling or fragrance sunscreen which still has a 30-50+ SPF rating include:

  • Aveeno – baby face stick sunscreen (SPF 50)
  • Babyganics – mineral based baby lotion (SPF 50)
  • Alba Botanica Very Emollient Kids Sunscreen (SPF 50)
  • Naked Bee Sunscreen (SPF 30)

Create Predictability and Routine with Sunscreen Lotion

Ensuring children can tolerate the regular application of sunscreen can be assisted by creating predictability around the concept of applying sunscreen lotion.  Using the plan and play approach can be a positive way for our kids on the spectrum to get used to wearing and applying sunscreen.

Plan by creating and reading a social story about the importance of sunscreen application.  Create a social story using the ‘Social Story Creator’ application demonstrating that where the sunlight lands on the skin, the skin needs to have something covering it so it won’t hurt. If something is covering the skin when you are in the sun, then the skin stays healthy and happy.”  Additionally, a fun children’s book to read is “Ashley’s Ultraviolet Adventures” (Glynis Ablon) and “Hey, Don’t forget the Sunscreen” (by Kimberling Galeti Kennedy) which is about creating understanding around why sunscreen and sun protection is needed.

Play by having the child apply suntan lotion on you (trying the different kinds you have available to see which they can tolerate the best). Teach the child where the suntan lotion needs to be applied. Take pictures of people on your phone, and ‘finger’ rub the lotion on their exposed skin with an app like ‘Doodle Buddy’.  Wrap the play in language, identifying the body parts, and the action of ‘rubbing it all in.’

Get Kids “Sensory Ready” before you apply!

As OT’s we recommends getting kids ‘sensory ready’ for the act of applying sunscreen.  Prior to application, have kids get some sea-themed proprioceptive input by crab walking or “wave” rolling. This type of input inhibits tactile sensitivity.

Some of the best ways to help these children better modulate & cope in these situations is to make sure that all of your touch is expected and applied with firm pressure. That means, using firm hard rubs when assisting the child to rub the lotion in, and demonstrating the way they can replicate this on themselves.

Before applying the sunscreen have children apply “invisible sunscreen” by rubbing their arms and legs briskly”. Applying rhythmic deep pressure in the form of squeezes and hugs down your child’s trunk arms and legs first as this helps to negate some of the irritation they may already be feeling before you even begin.

Overall – using our deep pressure principals to set up children for a sensory experience they may have previously experienced as unpleasant. Getting some deep pressure through the body before applying anything – rub down arms, legs and back with a towel, have the child wind in and out the beach towel by rolling, or use the Willbarger Protocol brushing system on the legs, arms, feet, hands and back.

Applying Sunscreen Lotion

While sitting at your child’s eye level, in plain view, with your touch expected, apply greaseless sunscreen in deep, firm rhythmic strokes from top to bottom (as not to further stimulate the light touch receptors associated with the hair cells). Proceed down their arms and legs trying to always keep one hand firmly on the skin as a grounding contact. During the sunscreen application, distraction techniques such as using a sing a song or ask kids to spell some words as having something to think about will reduce over-reactions.

2 thoughts on “Sensitive to Sunscreen? Tips and Tricks for a sensory sunsmart!”

  1. Pingback: Sunscreen Recommendations – Elaurian

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