Safe Sunscreen for Kids

July 6, 2018

Now that summer is upon us, parents are making trips to their local drug stores to stock up on sunscreen for the season of fun ahead. But before purchasing just any sunscreen, it’s important to take a closer look at what’s inside the actual product.  

Even though applying sunscreen to your kids can be a challenge, it's incredibly important. Sunburns during childhood are associated with an increased risk of melanoma, even more than sunburns that occur during adulthood. Of course, you want your kids to get out and enjoy those summer days, but following these tips will help keep them safe.


Active ingredients in sunscreen come in two forms: mineral and chemical filters. Each uses a different mechanism for protecting skin. Today, we have more information than ever when it comes to what we should and shouldn’t be using on our children’s delicate skin to protect them – and ourselves – from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Research shows a large number of sunscreens on the market today contain possibly harmful chemicals that are considered hormone disruptors. Hormone disruptors can affect how estrogen and other hormones act in the body by blocking them or mimicking them, which can throw off the body’s hormonal balance. While we are unsure exactly how harmful these chemicals can be in children, it is best to avoid them. The good news is there are much safer alternatives that do not show signs of being absorbed into the bloodstream. 

What to Look Out For

When choosing a sunscreen, try to avoid chemical sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, vitamin A palmitate (also called retinyl palmitate or retinol), homosalate, and paraben preservatives.  



Look for mineral sunscreens instead that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Both of these ingredients are shown to reflect UV rays and are less likely to irritate your baby’s skin. There is good evidence that little to no zinc or titanium particles actually penetrate the skin to reach living tissues. Thus, mineral sunscreens tend to be a safer option over chemical sunscreens.

You will also want to select a broad spectrum sunscreen that is at least SPF 30, but no more than SPF 50. Sunscreens advertised as greater than 50 SPF aren’t actually any more effective than SPF 50 and can be very costly. Save that money for ice cream (or college)! By choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen, you will be able to block both UVA and UVB rays, keeping your child’s skin safe from sun damage.

Though aerosol sunscreens may be convenient, they are known for missing spots. And kids can inhale those particles, so it’s best to avoid these and instead opt for a lotion, cream, or stick preparation.


Put sunscreen on 15 to 30 minutes before dressing or going outdoors. It takes time for sunscreens to work and you don’t want it to rub off on clothing or be rinsed off by water exposure too soon after application.

For sunscreen to be effective, it must be reapplied often, at least every 2 hours. I know dragging kids out of the pool to reapply sunscreen is no parent’s idea of fun, but a majority of sunscreens can lose as much as 90 percent of their effectiveness in just an hour, especially when playing in water or sweating. So bring snacks as bribes, and be sure to bring some snacks for yourself, too. You’ll have earned it by the time you’re done wrestling those cute little monsters. And who are we kidding? Those goldfish are delicious.

Don’t forget to use sunscreen even on those cloudy days. Up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can penetrate through clouds, and the chances of sunburn are still possible. UV rays can bounce back from water, sand, snow, and concrete, so you always want to make sure your child is protected.

Age Limits

Infants under 6 months of age lack the tanning pigments known as melanin and should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible. While most manufacturers advise against using sunscreen on infants younger than 6 months old, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that small amounts of sunscreen can be used on infants as a last resort when shade can’t be found.

Children’s skin can be sensitive to chemical allergens in sunscreen. If your child has eczema or sensitive skin, you might consider applying a small amount of sunscreen on the inside of your child’s wrist twice a day for a few days. If an irritation or rash develops, try another product or check with your pediatrician who can suggest a product less likely to cause irritation.

And don’t forget about your child’s eyes! Look for child-sized sunglasses with at least 99% UV protection.

Alternative Options

While it’s very important that we protect our children’s skin from harmful UV light, there are many other options that bypass a topical solution.

Clothing is the best natural protection from the sun. It blocks out harmful UV rays and protects the skin from damage. Choose tightly-knit, loose fitting clothing or swimwear. Rash guards offer great protection and dry quickly after getting wet. A sun hat is also a good way to protect your child’s face and eyes. As a note, light clothing reflects the sun’s rays more effectively than dark clothing and can keep your child cooler.

The sun is at its peak from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the summer. If it’s possible, avoid direct sunlight during these hours or opt for shaded areas, especially for infants. If shaded areas are sparse, use your stroller’s canopy or bring an umbrella.