Getting sunscreen on kids — especially those with tactile defensiveness

Do you battle getting sunscreen on kids?

Chances are, that if you’re a parent, you’ve had SOME kind of pushback from your kids about putting on sunscreen. Maybe they are just being impatient, maybe they don’t like the way it’s put on, maybe you’ve have no idea what makes it so hard. Whatever the reason we have teamed up with a local expert who is also a mom.  Daniele, from Boise Outdoor Occupational Therapy (@boiseoutdoorot) shared the following set of tips that especially support the tactile defensive child with sunscreen application.

Print friendly printer iconPRINT FRIENDLY PDF: Sunscreen Application for Tactile Defensive Children

Set Expectations

        • Create a social story, read a book, or use visual aids to teach your child the importance of sunscreen and how it keeps skin “healthy” & and “safe” from the sun.
        • Casually talk about sunscreen during bedtime, dinner, or driving. Never spring the application process on your child in a rush or last minute; connect with them and slowly prepare them.
        • Apply your own sunscreen in front of your child, ask child to help you apply your sunscreen, or have them apply it to a doll/animal. This gives them control and exposure.
        • Expectation of Time: “By the count of x” we will be done applying the sunscreen or “by the end of singing the ABCs/favorite song we will be finished.”

Sensory Investigation

        • Investigate your child’s unique sensory needs – where are they having challenges?
        • Is your sunscreen smelly, greasy, clumpy, cold? Warm sunscreen up with your hands, avoid scents.
        • Trial various types of sunscreens: spray, sunscreen face stick, and powder. Allow child to smell and feel sunscreen before application.  Lotions will most likely be the most challenging due to needing hands to spread it onto the skin.
        • Try rubbing a nice smelling chapstick on the tip of your child’s nose to override unpleasant smells.

Get Sensory

        • Insure your child is fed, calm, and regulated before application.
        • Have your child engage in deep proprioceptive input (heavy work) before application to help inhibit tactile sensitivity. This provides calm, regulating, and organizing input to their nervous system.
        • Heavy Work Examples: animals walks, stomping feet, roll up child in towel burrito, pull a weighted wagon, carry heavy items – any activity where the muscles, joints, & tendons are being pushed, pulled, flexed, stretched & pressed.
        • Apply lotion with firm rhythmic strokes for a more calming sensory application, as though you were hugging their arms, legs, and back.
        • Trial applying in front of mirror to include the visual sense for a greater feeling of control/predictability. Play a fun song or relaxing music during your routine.


        • Try a loose fitted sun hat: Pick out a special sun hat with your child that includes their favorite character or style – collaborate and give choices.
        • Try a sun shirt : Pick out a special sun shirt with your child that includes their favorite character or style – collaborate and give choices. Be mindful sun shirts may feel more cold when wet.
        • Try a wet suit : A wet suit can protect the skin, keep your child warmer in cold water and also give a feeling of being being hugged – calming proprioceptive input.
        • Bring a large umbrella or beach tent so children can take a break from wearing a hat or sun shirt. This may help regulate your child before the need to reapply sunscreen.
        • Ensure sun shirt has proper amount of SPF. Check out @swimzip with UPF 50+, blocks 98% of harmful rays – started by a local Boise mom of 3 with skin cancer.

Don’t Forget …

        • Do your best to start these routines early with your children so they become habits into adulthood.
        • Empower your child by collaborating with them and giving them choices and independence when possible -“Should we start with your arms or legs?”
        • Bring the Fun! Play or sing a fun summer song, paint on sunscreen “freckles”, “polka dots”, “angel kisses”, “tiger stripes,” or “fairy wings.”
        • Create a rhythm and do your best to stick with it. Allow it to change as your child grows – things that did not work in the past may suddenly work as their sensory system becomes more integrated.
        • Tactile Defensiveness is unique to each child due to the way the brain processes sensory information. Investigate and trial what will work best for your individual child. Start with connecting with your child.

For us, sunscreen is wildly important for anyone, but especially for young kids.  First, kids like to be outside, so they have more outdoor exposure.  Two, there are statistics that say 90% of our sun exposure happens before we’re 18!  Too much UV exposure or frequent sunburns, particularly during childhood, can make developing skin cancer more likely.


“Plus a child’s skin is naive in a way.  It hasn’t been exposed to a lot of things that adult skin has been, so it’s more inherently sensitive and vulnerable,” explains Dr. Lisa Swanson, FAAD.

Daniele Fallon

Daniele founded Boise Outdoor Occupational Therapy. She says, “After years of working in traditional settings, was astounded by the enormous therapeutic benefits I witnessed working with children outside.”

Daniele graduated magna cum laude with a Master of Science in Occupational and have experience working with the New York Department of Education – the largest and most diverse school system in the US and also worked as an Everwild Forest School Educator in Boise and continues to serve on their advisory committee. After years of working in traditional settings, she was astounded by the enormous therapeutic benefits I witnessed working with children outside. I knew it was time to get out of the clinic and into the great outdoors. Learn more about her and her work here.

Dr. Swanson is a favorite among parents and kids for her bedside manner. She loves the difficult pediatric dermatology cases.

Dr. Lisa Swanson did her dermatology residency at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, followed by a pediatric dermatology fellowship at Phoenix Children’s hospital.  She is is an active lecturer at national conferences discussing pediatric dermatology with clinical audiences across the country. Known for her excellent bedside manner and expertise, she has been selected as a “Top Doc” by 5280 Magazine in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.


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