Jun 13, 2017, 2:59:58 PM CDT Jan 30, 2023, 10:22:47 AM CST

How to choose the best sunscreen for kids

What parents need to know about choosing a safe sunscreen and how they work for kids

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

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

How to choose a safe sunscreen for kids:

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

Keep in mind that you don't necessarily need to buy sunscreen that says it is made specifically for infants or children. As long as the sunscreen provides all the ingredients above, it is okay and safe for your child says Nnenna Agim, M.D., Division Director of Dermatology at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern.

7 tips for using sunscreen for kids

Even after you've purchased the right sunscreen for kids, it won't provide effective protection unless you apply it correctly. Follow these 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 the sun's power.

2. Skip sunscreen on babies under 6 months.

"Everyone 6 months or older needs to wear sunscreen," says Dr. Agim. "If your child is under 6 months, we recommend limited exposure to the sun. Keep your baby in the shade, with a hat and clothing to cover their sun sensitive new skin."

3. Avoid spray sunscreen.

Spray on sunscreen seems like a great timesaver, but it actually 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 as well.

4. Apply enough sunscreen.

A big mistake is that some parents just don't put enough sunscreen on their children. In general, 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 will be 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 child care provider – make sure you've communicated with them about sunscreen best practices. Establish who will apply sunscreen and how often, to make sure your child's skin is always protected.

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, and you can consider sun protective or UPF clothing for added protection.

Is it dangerous to wear sunscreen?

The short answer is no. Some media reports have circulated that sunscreen causes skin cancer, and a new study by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that some sunscreen ingredients can enter the bloodstream.

Dr. Agim explains that there is no cause for alarm. "Anything from toothpaste to lip balm ingredients can be detected in the blood regularly," she says. 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 application in real life.

It's important for parents to remember that experts agree that not wearing sunscreen poses risk. The FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology consider sunscreen products effective in helping prevent skin cancer – which is increasing. One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

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, explains Dr. Agim. Mineral-based sunscreens may be less irritating for sensitive skin, though chemical-based sunscreens may offer broader UV spectrum coverage. Dr. Agim does recommend avoiding sunscreens containing avobenzone, which has been found to be bad for the environment. Furthermore, it is now banned in some locations, such as coastal areas with nearby coral reefs.

Dr. Agim also cautions parents not to rely on oral supplements promising sun protection. "These pills can give a false sense of security and should never replace sunscreen," she says.

When it comes to sunscreen for kids, you don't necessarily need one made just for children. Look for SPF 30 or higher and broad-spectrum coverage. See more tips from an expert at Children's. 

Learn More

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

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