Jun 13, 2017, 2:59:58 PM CDT May 23, 2023, 10:21:16 PM CDT

How to choose the best sunscreen for children

What parents need to know about choosing a safe and effective kids’ sunscreen

Mother putting sunscreen on young daughter outside Mother putting sunscreen on young daughter outside

When it comes to kids' sunscreen, there are so many choices you may not know which option is best. Sunscreen – or sunblock – protects the skin against the sun's ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which cause sunburn.

How to choose a safe sunscreen for kids:

  • Choose a broad-spectrum coverage (meaning the sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB rays).
  • Consider whether it is water-resistant.
  • Look for a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
  • Make sure it contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (better for sensitive skin).

Difference between kid and adult sunscreen

Not all sunscreens are created equal, and some key differences exist between those formulated for kids and adults. One of the main differences lies in the level of SPF. Adult sunscreens often have higher SPF values, typically ranging from SPF 30 to SPF 50+, offering a greater defense against UVA and UVB rays. Kid sunscreens usually have lower SPF values, around SPF 15 to SPF 30, which is still effective but may require more frequent reapplication.

Another difference is the ingredients. Sunscreens for kids often exclude harsh chemicals and fragrances that irritate their skin, making them gentler and hypoallergenic. Kid sunscreens may also have added features like water resistance, making them suitable for swimming and outdoor activities. It's important to choose the right sunscreen for each age group to ensure optimal protection while considering your child's unique needs and sensitivities

7 tips for using sunscreen for kids

Even after you've purchased the best sunscreen for your kids, it won't provide adequate protection unless you apply it correctly. Follow these seven tips to make sure your child is protected from the sun, especially when swimming or sweating:

1. Apply sunscreen daily.

Sunscreen isn't just for the beach or warm weather. You should apply it anytime your child is going to be outdoors. Even if it's not sunny, 80% of UV rays still get through the haze. In addition, snow reflects 80% of UV radiation.

2. Skip sunscreen on babies under 6 months.

If your child is 6 months or older, they should wear sunscreen. If your child is under 6 months, try to limit exposure to the sun by keeping your baby in the shade, with a hat and clothing to cover their sun-sensitive skin. Get more tips on keeping your newborn or baby safe during the summertime.

3. Avoid spray sunscreen.

Spray-on sunscreen seems like a great timesaver, but it puts your child at risk of breathing in harmful chemicals when sprayed. Instead, opt for sunscreen lotions, which also contain moisturizers for the skin. The thicker and greasier the lotion, the more water-resistant it tends to be.

4. Apply enough sunscreen.

A big mistake some parents make is not putting enough sunscreen on their children. Generally, it takes about one ounce (two tablespoons) of sunscreen to cover the exposed parts of your body – and a bit less for smaller children. Make sure important parts of your child's body are covered, such as the nose, ears, neck, hands and feet. Lips also are at risk for sunburn, so select a lip balm with an SPF 30 or higher.

5. Apply early and reapply often.

Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before your child is exposed to the sun and plan to repeat the process every one to two hours, or sooner if your child has been in the water.

6. Communicate with other caregivers.

If your child will be in the care of someone else – whether a relative, friend or childcare provider – make sure you've communicated with them about sunscreen best practices. Establish who will apply sunscreen and how often to protect your child's skin.

7. Don't rely just on sunscreen for sun protection.

It's important for parents to understand that while sunscreen is effective, they should also be taking other precautions to protect their child's skin. Avoid outdoor activities during peak sunshine hours and try to find shade when spending time outside. Clothing also helps protect skin from UV rays; you can consider sun protective or UPF clothing for added protection.

Is it dangerous to wear sunscreen?

The short answer is no when used correctly. A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study found that some sunscreen ingredients can enter the bloodstream. But it's important to note that other products, such as toothpaste and lip balm ingredients, can be detected in the bloodstream. Additionally, the FDA study, which followed 24 adults applying sunscreen on 75% of their body surface four times a day for four days, differs from the real-life application.

Parents need to remember that wearing sunscreen is highly recommended to protect the skin from the harmful effects of the sun's ultraviolet rays. Prolonged and unprotected exposure to the sun can lead to sunburn and premature skin aging. And the FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) consider sunscreen products effective in helping prevent skin cancer – which is increasing. According to the AAD, one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime.

Wondering if there are any ingredients to avoid for safe sunscreen? The choice of mineral-based sunscreen vs. chemical-based is more about skin sensitivity. Mineral-based sunscreens may be less irritating for sensitive skin, though chemical-based sunscreens may offer broader UV spectrum coverage. Avoid sunscreens containing avobenzone, which is harmful to the environment. Furthermore, it is banned in some locations, such as coastal areas with nearby coral reefs.

While there are oral supplements on the market that claim to provide sun protection, their effectiveness is still a subject of debate and ongoing research. These supplements often contain antioxidants, vitamins (such as vitamins E and C), and carotenoids (like beta-carotene and lycopene), believed to help protect the skin from sun damage. The level of protection provided by these supplements is generally much lower compared to topical sunscreens.

It's recommended to talk with your child's pediatrician or a dermatologist, who can provide personalized advice based on your child's specific needs and medical history. They can help you make an informed decision and guide you on the most effective and reliable sun protection methods.

Learn More

See more skin safety tips from our pediatric dermatology experts. For additional information about keeping your child safe during the hot summer months, view more summer safety articles.

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