What’s a Safe Sunscreen for Kids?

Kid wearing sunscreen

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years regarding sunscreen and the safety of its ingredients. Add children into the mix, and the debate grows. Dr. Jane Weston and her staff at Jane Weston, M.D. understand the importance of wearing sunscreen consistently from as early as six months of age to reduce skin damage and lower the risk of skin cancer. To help you narrow your search for the safest, most effective sunscreen, below are some things to look for when choosing a sunscreen for your children.

Broad-Spectrum Coverage

The first thing to look for when you shop for sunscreen is “broad-spectrum” protection. A broad-spectrum sunscreen provides protection from UVA and UVB rays: the two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by the sun that can damage skin, promote premature aging and cause skin cancer. UVA rays penetrate all layers of the skin, injuring the underlying layers. UVB rays do not penetrate as deeply, but cause sunburn and damage on the surface of the skin. Since both UVA and UVB rays harm skin, using a broad-spectrum sunscreen on your child provides the best coverage and protection. Regardless of all other factors, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical and mineral sunscreens block the sun’s rays differently. Chemical sunscreens convert UV rays to heat and then release the heat from the skin to stop UV rays from penetrating the skin. Chemical sunscreens may contain several active ingredients, such as cinnamates, salicylates, PABA derivatives and benzophenones. Some parents prefer chemical sunscreens because they are thinner, and thus easier to apply to kids.

Mineral sunscreens may contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and create a physical barrier by sitting on top of the skin. This physical barrier deflects UV rays away from the skin. Some dermatologists consider mineral sunscreens to be gentler on kids’ skin because they are derived from nature and have less harmful ingredients to be absorbed by the skin.

The bottom line: If your child can tolerate one type of sunscreen over another, it is best to use it versus nothing at all. If your child is flexible, lean toward a mineral sunscreen. There are new mineral formulas on the market that are easier to apply and more kid-friendly, so it is a matter of personal preference.

Choose an SPF of 30 to 50

The sun protection factor (SPF) is often the first thing you notice when shopping for sunscreen. SPF indicates how well a sunscreen protects the skin against UVB rays (UVA protection is not rated) and is determined by how long it takes skin to sunburn after sunscreen has been applied. With SPFs that range from 5 to 120, it may seem that the higher the SPF, the better the protection. That is not the case. A higher SPF does not mean it lasts longer, nor does it mean that it provides better protection against the sun. Ironically, sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50 can give parents a false sense of security, leading them to use less sunscreen or not reapply sunscreen to their children as often as needed. Surprisingly, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 can have similar effectiveness to an SPF of 50 if the higher SPF wasn’t applied correctly, adequately or frequently.

Your best bet: Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50. While no SPF blocks 100% of the sun’s rays, an SPF between 30 and 50 will block approximately 97% of UVA and UVB rays. Applying it liberally and often will ensure adequate protection.

Lotion, Spray, Stick, or Powder?

Many health professionals advise that creams, powders, and lotions provide the best UV protection because you can see where it is applied and can ensure an adequate amount is used. Sprays, on the other hand, are convenient and often preferred by kids because they are less sticky and greasy. However, sprays often provide inconsistent coverage – some of the spray may blow away during application, an adequate amount of spray sunscreen may not be used or large sections of skin may be missed altogether. Stick sunscreens often require multiple swipes across the same area before adequate protection is achieved. In addition, it can be difficult to see where the stick has been applied.

Using a spray or stick sunscreen is better than using nothing at all; however, using a lotion or cream will help to ensure your child has adequate protection from UV rays. Consider using them together to convert your child to a lotion – use the stick on their face but lotion elsewhere or spray sunscreen on their legs but incorporate a lotion on their upper body and face.

Alternatively Colorescience’s mineral sunscreens are safe for kids. Specially formulated to be non-irritating and ideal for children’s sensitive skin, their paraben-free brush on formula is easy to apply, and children can even do it themselves, instilling the habit of sun protection from a young age. We are proud to carry a range of non-toxic sunscreens that are safe for children, which can be purchased from our Menlo Park location.

Apply and Repeat, Frequently

Unprotected skin can start to burn in as little as 15 minutes, but it can take up to 12 hours before you see the full effects of your child’s sun exposure. The key to adequately protecting your child’s skin from the sun is to liberally apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors. Then, reapply sunscreen every two hours, or more frequently if your child is sweating or swimming.

Additional Coverage

To help limit your child’s exposure to the sun, have them wear a hat, sunglasses and rash guard swimwear when they are outdoors or swimming, and use extra coverage during the hours of 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. when the sun is at its hottest. Combining these strategies with adequate and frequent broad-spectrum sunscreen application will help protect your child’s skin from the powerful rays of the sun.

One thing we can all agree on: avoiding burns and decreasing sun exposure during childhood can reduce the chances of skin damage and developing skin cancer later in life. Experiment with different types of sunscreens to find one that your child will tolerate. If you need more help choosing the right sunscreen for your child, call Jane Weston, M.D. at 650-363-0300, or stop by the office to learn about the sunscreen products we offer. We will help you narrow your search and find a sunscreen that is right for your whole family.