The Best Sunscreens For Babies And Kids Are Also The Best For You
Kids’ sunscreen is the best sunscreen out there — for adults, too. These are our top six.
Whether you’re enjoying a family beach day or making a quick stop at the playground, the best sunscreen for kids should always be in your bag. The Sun’s ultraviolet rays can burn skin in as little as 15 minutes — even when it’s cloudy — and early-in-life sunburns greatly increase the risk of skin cancer down the road. The best sunscreen for babies and kids keeps them protected from the Sun’s damaging rays, is safe for little bodies, and is gentle on the environment, particularly delicate marine ecosystems.
“It is really important for both your child's health currently and for their future health,” says Christopher Scuderi, D.O., medical director at Northeast Florida Millennium Physician Group. “Using sunscreen regularly helps prevent sunburns, which are painful later that day or the next, and helps prevent future damage to your child's skin and greatly reduces their future risk of skin cancer.”
In fact, experts estimate that roughly 60% to 80% of a person’s total lifetime sun exposure happens in the first 18 years of life. Just one or two blistering sunburns doubles your child's risk of melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. But luckily, this is completely preventable, and that’s where a good quality sunscreen comes into play.
For infants under 6 months old, protection means keeping them out of the sun completely. “Sun exposure can be extremely dangerous for babies due to their thin skin and relative lack of melanin, the skin pigment that provides some sun protection,” says Anna L. Chien, M.D., a dermatology professor at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Because babies’ skin is so sensitive, she says, even sunscreen for babies can be too irritating. When the sun can’t be avoided, dress infants in long sleeves and pants and a wide-brimmed hat or bonnet, and use a stroller with a canopy or hood.
Children 6 months and up, however, should wear sunscreen — in addition to seeking shade and wearing hats, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing that covers as much skin as possible.
But with so many different sunscreens for kids on the market, how do you choose?
What You Need to Know About Sunscreen for Kids
When it comes to selecting the best sunscreen for your kids, there are a few hard-and-fast rules that experts across the board agree on.
Mineral vs. chemical sunscreen: There’s two main categories of sunscreen: physical (oftentimes called mineral) and chemical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens contain active ingredients that reflect the Sun’s rays, while chemical sunscreens contain active ingredients that absorb the Sun’s rays so your skin doesn’t. Both work great at protecting the skin, but physical sunscreen is known to be safer for those with acne-prone or sensitive skin.
Broad-spectrum: All sunscreens protect the skin from UVB rays, but broad-spectrum sunscreen protects your skin from UVA and UVB rays. Although UVB rays are the stronger of the two and cause sunburns and most skin cancers, UVA rays can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots, and also increase the risk of skin cancer. Broad-spectrum sunscreen is necessary for extended outdoor activities like swimming and hiking.
SPF 30 or higher: It’s no secret that baby’s and children’s skin is super sensitive, which makes it extra susceptible to serious burns. That’s why The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreens labeled SPF 30 or higher. Although you’ll find products with SPF all the way up to 100, studies have shown that the level of additional UVB protection you’ll get above SPF 30 is minimal. SPF 30 sunscreen blocks 97% of UVB rays.
Choose Water-Resistant: Look for a sunscreen labeled “water-resistant,” especially if the kids will be swimming or sweating. Because no sunscreen is truly waterproof, the FDA no longer allows brands to make that claim. But if companies have tested and shown that their product can remain effective in water for up to 40 or 80 minutes, then they can legally use the term “water-resistant” on labels, followed by the tested-for time frame.
Tips for Applying Sunscreen to Kids
None of what goes into your sunscreen matters if you don’t apply it correctly. “To achieve full efficacy, it is crucial to use enough sunscreen, not spread it too thin, and reapply,” Chien says. “Thirty minutes before kids go outside, apply to all exposed areas of the body not covered by clothing, such as the face, ears, neck, and back of the hands. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if your child is going in the pool or sweating.”
“One thing that helps is to try to explain to your children why sunscreen is important in an age-appropriate way,” he says. “For younger kids who want to help, using a stick sunscreen [themself] may be easier, followed by a parent touchup to important areas or places that they missed. You can also make it a game, such as ‘Beat your Parent’ or ‘Simon Says’ to make it more fun.”
Experts recommend lotions and creams over spray and stick sunscreens, in order to guarantee full coverage, at least for the first application. “A big problem with spray sunscreens is people miss areas and you don’t get an even application — and you don’t want to inhale it,” says Anna Bender, M.D., a professor of dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Scuderi recommends applying liquid sunscreen with a makeup brush for easier application.
“Start with a sunscreen cream or lotion, then sprays are okay for touch-ups,” Bender adds. “Just use them in a well-ventilated area and rub them in afterwards.” Sunscreen sticks are fine for touchups as well, she says, as long as you swipe each area at least twice to ensure adequate coverage.
Which Sunscreen Is Best for Kids?
Although the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates sunscreens, considers 13 different chemical ingredients and both mineral ingredients to be safe and effective, all of the dermatologists Fatherly spoke with prefer mineral sunscreens for kids, for a number of reasons.
“I like mineral for simplicity’s sake,” says Ivy Lee, M.D., a dermatologist in Pasadena, California and medical director of Direct Dermatology. “Both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are broad spectrum, whereas, with chemicals, some are more effective than others, so it depends on combination to offer broad-spectrum coverage. Also, because mineral sunscreens tend to be opaquer, you know exactly where you have applied and where you haven’t, and they are easy for kids to apply themselves.”
Mineral sunscreens are also less likely to irritate kids’ skin than chemical products because they sit on top of the skin versus soaking in. “Kids can get allergic contact dermatitis to the active ingredients in sunscreen, which is more likely with chemical sunscreens than mineral,” Lee says. “But the preservatives can also cause irritation. That’s why I recommend sticking with simple, bland but effective ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.”
Parents should also know that a sunscreen that doesn’t bother adult skin could easily trigger a kid’s skin. “Children have more sensitive skin than adults; therefore, mineral sunscreens are a better option for them,” Chien says. “You may want to test sunscreen on the inside of your child’s wrist. If they have a little irritation, try another sunscreen.”
It’s mainly because of the skin sensitivity issue that certain sunscreens are marketed specifically for kids or babies. But in most cases, this just means that the product is made with active mineral ingredients instead of chemicals; there may also be no fragrances, minimal preservatives, or other potentially irritating components in the lotion. So there’s no reason why an adult can’t also use a sunscreen marked for babies or kids. It may even be better for the adult if they also have skin sensitivities.
The main knock against mineral sunscreens has always been their cosmetic appeal. “Mineral, or physical, sunscreens tend to be thicker and may leave a white cast behind,” Chien says. “However, many new formulations are micronized, meaning the product’s particles are small enough to blend and disappear into the skin more easily.”
Are Chemical Sunscreens Safe for Kids?
Concerns have been raised about a few ingredients found in some chemical sunscreens. Most notably, oxybenzone, one of the most commonly used ingredients because of its ability to absorb both UVA and UVB rays, has come under fire. Preliminary studies conducted on animals have suggested that oxybenzone could mess with hormonal systems within the body, and observational analyses of humans have revealed a potential link between the chemical and lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys and lower birth weights.
Although this preliminary data is worth noting, it’s far from definitive and does not prove that oxybenzone poses a real health threat to humans. “Old research, where oxybenzone was force-fed to immature rodents, suggested that oxybenzone may cause hormone disruption,” Chien says. “But topical application by humans does not equal the oral dosage administered to the rodents. More recent human studies have shown absolutely no change in hormonal levels in individuals using sunscreens containing oxybenzone.”
Bender is also not worried about oxybenzone posing a health threat, especially since we regularly excrete it via urine versus it accumulating in the body like many other chemicals do.
Still, for parents who want to be extra cautious given the research, this could be yet another reason to choose mineral sunscreen for kids over products containing oxybenzone.
The Environmental Impact of Sunscreen
Although the health risks associated with chemical sunscreens may be unproven, those aren’t the only concerns about them. Many have the potential to harm aquatic ecosystems. Since they’re not easily removed by wastewater treatment systems, these chemicals inevitably end up in waterways when they come off of our bodies while we swim and recreate.
In fact, according to the National Park Service, up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters coral reef areas annually. Studies have shown that oxybenzone and octinoxate, specifically, bleach out the coral, potentially causing irreparable harm to these already delicate ecosystems. These chemicals have also been detected in the bodies of fish around the globe, which could negatively impact food chains.
Citing these grave ecological concerns, Hawaii and the Western Pacific nation of Palau both banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Key West, Florida and the Caribbean nation of Bonaire followed suit. The U.S. Virgin Islands has banned the sale and use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone, octoerylene, and octinoxate, and Aruba has done the same for sunscreen containing oxybenzone. Some regions of Mexico, including some tourist attractions such as Garrafon National Park, also ban chemical sunscreen. Outdoor retailer REI stopped selling oxybenzone sunscreens in 2020.
Due to growing awareness of the environmental issues associated with oxybenzone and octinoxate, some sunscreens not containing either ingredient are now claiming to be “reef safe.” However, according to Consumer Reports, there is no agreed-upon or government-regulated definition for this term.
Additionally, oxybenzone and octinoxate are simply the most studied of the sunscreen chemicals — others may very well impose similar damage on coral reefs. If this is a concern, your best bet is to stick with products made mineral sunscreen products made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are not as ecologically harmful.
The Best Sunscreens for Kids, Babies, And Everyone Else
Free from phthalates, parabens, oxybenzone, and octinoxate, this water-resistant, broad-spectrum protection sunscreen lasts up to 80 minutes on the skin, even in the water. And the improved roll-on stick prevents the sunscreen from melting in your beach bag and running from your forehead into your eyes.
Coppertone is a classic for a reason, and its newest addition, a spray formula, makes application a breeze. This hypoallergenic formula with added aloe and vitamin E is great for little ones or adults who may already have a little sunburn.
Although it’s not marketed specifically for kids, this sunscreen is a great option for the entire family. It doesn’t leave a white cast and is formulated with marigold, sunflower seed, and chamomile extracts that nourish and protect skin throughout the day.
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