Why Floaties and SPF 100 May Not be Enough to Protect Your Keiki

From dry drowning to scorched skin, local experts remind us how to keep our kids safe in Hawai‘i this summer.


Don’t turn your back when your inexperienced little swimmers are in the water. Photo: Getty Images


With Hawaiʻi’s year-round sunshine and proximity to beaches, it’s easy for parents to skimp on kids’ sunscreen or let keiki play in water, unsupervised. But here’s the reality: In Hawai‘i, drowning continues to be a leading cause of death in children ages 1 to 4. Local doctors also are seeing a growing number of children and youth with sun-damaged skin.


How can we keep our families safe this summer?


Let’s hear from three local experts: Michael Hamilton, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente Hawaiʻi and past president of the Hawai‘i chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Keanu Santana, operations supervisor for Wet ’n’ Wild Hawaiʻi, where he manages the park’s water slides, security and first aid. And Allyson Spence-Shishido, a pediatric dermatologist with Kaiser Permenante Hawaiʻi.


Water wings, such as these, create a false sense of security. Photo: Getty Images


From Michael Hamilton, pediatrician, Kaiser Permanente Hawaiʻi.


  • Inflatable armbands, also known as “water wings” or “arm floaties,” have been popular swimming devices for kids for decades. However, they are not safe for most children. They can be dangerous because they provide a false sense of security and can easily deflate or slip off, leaving a child who can’t swim, helpless in the water.


  • A safer option is “Puddle Jumpers,” which are U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal floatation devices (PFD) that can substitute for a Type III life jacket. Puddle Jumpers are for kids weighing between 30 and 50 pounds, and they are made of durable materials that cannot be punctured or easily removed. They have two rings that wrap around the arms and a flotation piece that wraps around the chest and buckles in the back.

Puddle Jumpers are safer than water wings and wrap around your child’s chest and arms. Photo: Puddle Jumpers


  • For infants and children lighter than 30 pounds, choose a floatation device that is attached to a strap between the legs and has a collar for head support. This helps keep the child floating in an upward position.


  • No floatation device takes the place of proper adult supervision. Always stay within arm’s reach of young children and inexperienced swimmers.


  • If your child inhales or swallow water, seek medical attention or call your physician if symptoms are worse than when a “drink goes down the wrong pipe.” Things to look for in your child are: severe coughing that does not resolve in minutes, trouble breathing, chest pain, persistent coughing, unusual lethargy, confusion and vomiting. The physician can recommend getting your child checked out at the ER or can provide other advice for monitoring symptoms.


Who’s watching them? Create a schedule where adults can take turns supervising children in the water. Photo: Getty Images


  • When there is a family party or get-together, often parents are socializing, reading and taking pictures. Ask the (sober) adults to take turns being the designated “water watcher.” During his or her shift, the water watcher should give full attention to the children playing in the water—no books, phones, alcoholic beverages, conversation or other distractions. This person should be within arm’s length of inexperienced swimmers.


  • Drowning doesn’t look like it does in the movies. It happens quickly and silently. Children can’t flail or yell for help because they are hyperventilating and gasping for breath, and their arms are below the water’s surface. If you see a child’s head tilted back or bobbing below the surface, eyes glassy or unable to focus, the child may be in trouble.


  • Open-water swimming is much different from swimming in a pool. Even if your child grew up playing on beaches, there still are plenty of hidden dangers from swimming in open water, such as riptides or hidden depths. Young or inexperienced children shouldn’t swim in open water while unsupervised.


  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends swimming lessons for children 4 and older. Every child develops differently, so consult with your pediatrician if you’re not sure whether your child is ready.


  • Around 12 months old, you might want to introduce your child to water. At this young age, it’s more about allowing your child to get comfortable in the water—not about learning to swim. Keep your child in your arms at all times and never allow his or her head to go under water.


From Keanu Santana, operations supervisor, Wet ’n’ Wild Hawaiʻi.


  • Be within arm’s reach of your child at all times, especially if the child isn’t a proficient swimmer. If you can’t touch them, they are too far from you in the event that they need help.


  • Body temperature drops more quickly in the water than on land. If your child is shivering, immediately take him or her out of the water. Children should wear hats, rash guards, wetsuits, and reef-safe sunscreen to protect them from harsh sunlight, and to ensure proper body temperature.


Pediatricians recommend introducing babies to water when they are around 12 months old. Photo: Getty Images


  • Invest in swimming lessons. With the increasing popularity of ISR (Infant Swimming Resource), no child is too young to learn how to swim—or at least float until help arrives. There are many free or affordable community options for kids. Visiting a waterpark or choosing a mellow beach to teach your child how to swim, is a great idea, too.


  • Talk to water specialists. If you visit a beach or pool, and before you get in, ask a lifeguard or the regulars about any rip currents or other water-related issues. Lifeguards appreciate being checked in with and will tell you valuable information about the swimming area.


From Allyson Spence-Shishido, pediatric dermatologist, Kaiser Permanente Hawaiʻi.


  • Skin cancers and sun damage is rising in Hawaiʻi’s kids. These include freckles and skin discoloration in skin, which appear on various parts of the face including nose, cheeks and neck.


  • A lot of people forget to put sunscreen on their neck—particularly the area above the T-shirt collar. If parents see freckles and sun damage in their children, they can try to be more vigilant about sun protection. The majority of sun exposure comes before a person becomes an adult. Just one sunburn in childhood can double a person’s risk of melanoma as an adult.


  • The American Academy of Dermatology doesn’t recommend sunscreen for babies under 6 months. Infants have thinner skin that absorbs more chemicals. Avoid putting babies under direct sunlight, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Keep babies under a shade when you’re outside and cover them with hats, sunglasses, lightweight clothing with long sleeves and sun protection.


Kids might need a little help from grownups when applying sunscreen. An SPF of between 30 and 50 is enough to protect their skin. Photo: Getty Images


  • When choosing sunscreen, there are three things you should look for. Make sure it’s “broad spectrum,” because it will protect your child from both “UVA” rays (which cause tans, aging skin and penetrates deeply into the skin) and “UVB” rays (which cause sunburn, most skin most cancers and touches the superficial layers of the skin). Sun protection factor, which we all know as “SPF,” is how we determine how good a sunscreen is. But SPF only measures UVB protection. To be safe, always use sunscreen that is water-resistant, broad spectrum and with an SPF of at least 30.


  • A lot of sunscreens for children contain zinc and titanium, which sit on the top and does not penetrate skin. These are physical blockers that are not linked to coral bleaching. To help the environment (and to educate your kids about conservation), avoid sun-protection products with “oxybenzone,” which is the harmful chemical that causes coral-reef damage.


  • More than five years ago, sunscreen labels were required to change their wording after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) no longer allowed manufacturers to claim their products were “sweatproof,” “sunblock” or “waterproof.” Doing so, created a false of security.


  • Sunscreen does not last all day. It is water-resistant for only 40 minutes to 80 minutes, depending on the label. Apply—and reapply—sunscreen according to the instructions. You don’t need to use sunscreen with an SPF of 100. Values of 30 to 50 should be enough. The key is to apply it correctly all over your keiki’s exposed skin.