We’re all aware of the risks associated with too much sun exposure, including sunburn and skin cancer. But at the same time, we’re becoming more aware of dangerous chemicals. We want to protect our children. So what’s the safest sunscreens for kids?
It’s so easy for babies and young children to get sunburned, even when you think it’s too cool for the sun to be a problem! General Leia’s first Easter happened while we still lived in Georgia. It was only April, but it was still pretty warm.
After church, there was an Easter egg hunt, so our little family stayed. Leia was only nine months, but would curiously pick up an egg if you placed her right in front of it. That counts as Easter egg hunting, right?
She was wearing a little sweet dress with straps, and I was so surprised when she had a sunburn after only an hour or two in April. I felt so awful about her red skin.
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That experience was a wake-up call for me! I needed to more carefully protect my little girl from the sun, whether with safe sunscreen for kids or with protective clothing.
The problem is, there’s a lot of sunscreens out there! And it can be hard to know which one to pick. That’s why I want to give you the info you need to make good sunscreen choices.
Types of sunscreens
When you walk into your local store, there can be a whole aisle of sunscreens! They all make claims, many saying they’re “baby safe” or designed for kids… It can be overwhelming! All you want is summer fun for your kids.
Even with all these options, there are really only two main divisions of sunscreen ingredients: mineral and organic. With a little bit of science, we can learn the difference in how these two types work, their safety, and how you can tell them apart!
“Organic” here doesn’t mean the same thing as when you use it talking about organic foods. Instead, it just means that the sunscreens are chemicals made mostly of carbon.
Organic sunscreens work by absorbing UV light (the type of light that causes damage), keeping the light from affecting your skin. When the organic sunscreen absorbs the UV light, it causes a chemical reaction that breaks down the sunscreen.
Often, organic sunscreens seem preferable because they feel better. They don’t leave that slimy residue that you might remember from getting sunscreen on as a kid. They can be really lightweight, and they’re easy to put into spray form.
Mineral sunscreens (like this fantastic option) are typically made with either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. You can recognize a mineral sunscreen because it has a metal name (like titanium or zinc) in it.
Mineral sunscreens are considered “physical sunscreens,” because the mineral particles work as tiny mirrors, simply reflecting sun away from your skin. When you wear a mineral sunscreen, there’s no chemical reaction happening on the surface of your skin.
These sunscreens usually feel heavier and thicker. You’re more likely to find them in a lotion, although there are some spray formulations now.
Health effects of sunscreens
As always, there’s pros and cons with both organic and mineral sunscreens. When people ask about sunscreen safety, they are usually more concerned about the chemicals in organic sunscreens, particularly one called oxybenzone.
About 4% of the oxybenzone or other organic sunscreens you apply end up being absorbed into your skin, and from there can move into your bloodstream. Human studies have shown that this compound can cross the placenta too, meaning that the unborn child is exposed to it whenever a pregnant mother is.
There is research that shows health effects of oxybenzone in humans. One study showed that women who had higher exposures to oxybenzone were more likely than other women to have boys born about half a week early. Now, of course, this is about 3-4 days, so it’s up to you to decide if this effect is really a problem or not.
There are other studies that show that oxybenzone can negatively affect reproductive function in models such as rat neurons or fish. The caveat, though, is that the oxybenzone was given to the fish or nerve cells at concentrations much higher than you’d actually get from using the sunscreen.
How can you tell the difference between mineral and organic sunscreens?
You may have heard that you can tell if you have an organic sunscreen by the letters “oxy-” in the name. Many times this trick works, but not always! For example, all four of the active ingredients in the bottle shown below are organic sunscreens.
The easier way to tell if you are dealing with an organic or mineral sunscreen is to see whether the name starts with a metal, like zinc or titanium. If so, it’s a mineral sunscreen. Otherwise, it’s organic.
Should you make your own sunscreen?
There are lots of DIY sunscreen recipes out there, and you can buy zinc oxide off Amazon, so… why not just make your own?
It’s really hard to completely homogenize your sunscreen. If there are clumps of zinc oxide, you’re likely to get burned where there are patches of lotion not containing any sunscreen. Zinc oxide really tends to clump really badly, and it’s super hard to disperse.
Some people suggest that coconut oil blocks UV light, but it doesn’t do so well enough to work as sunscreen. Just save yourself and your kids the skin cancer and sunburn risk and buy actual sunscreen.
Organic or mineral sunscreens?
Generally speaking, mineral sunscreens are safer. They don’t absorb into the body like organic sunscreens do, so that keeps them from causing harmful health effects.
One caveat: spray sunscreens (both organic and mineral) are more dangerous than their lotion counterparts. Although they’re a lot easier to apply, it’s dangerous to inhale them. If you choose a spray sunscreen, tell your child to turn their face away during spraying. Instead of spraying on their face, spray a little into your hand and then rub it on.
Best non-toxic sunscreens for babies and kids
Beware, just because a sunscreen is labeled as a “baby” sunscreen does not make it a mineral sunscreen! I honestly don’t know what the qualifier is for a baby sunscreen, but many of them contain organic sunscreens (or a combination of organic and mineral).
Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen
Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen is a great option. It uses non-nano zinc oxide as its active ingredient. In addition, the Environmental Working Group gives it a 1 rating (which is really hard to come by). Thinksafe is safe both for your baby and the environment, and its long-lasting.
Babybum SPF 50 Sunscreen
Babybum is another zinc-oxide based sunscreen with great ratings from the EWG. It’s safe for sensitive skin and is phthalate free and fragrance free.
Badger Baby Sunscreen
Badger Baby Sunscreen is also reef-safe and made with zinc oxide. It contains only seven simple ingredients, and the non-nano zinc oxide means it won’t absorb into baby’s skin.
Sunscreen application tips
Follow the bottle’s instructions on how long to sit out between application and getting into the water. Sunscreen needs time (like 15-30 minutes) to absorb into the skin. If that time isn’t given, the sunscreen will come off in the water, leaving you unprotected (and potentially causing harm to marine life).
The best thing to do is to put sunscreen on your child while he’s still buck naked. That way, you don’t accidentally miss some spots trying to get up under a strap. Plus, that gives more time for the sunscreen to absorb before you go out.
Other ways to protect your child in the sun
The easiest way to avoid sunscreen altogether? Cover more skin on you child with protective clothing. I’ve started buying swimsuits that come with sleeves for my kids. I love doing this, because then I only have to put sunscreen on their little legs and faces. There are cute options for both boys and girls!
Hats are a great way to protect your kids too! They’re especially important if your child has fine hair, because her scalp can get sunburned. These sweet little hats, that come with a chinstrap, help you keep the hat on your little one.
NOTE: Children under six months should not wear sunscreen! Their skin will absorb chemicals more easily than older children’s skin, so sunscreen isn’t safe for them. In addition, it’s easier for young babies to overheat.
Keep young infants covered up with a hat and outfit like (like the ones I show above), or to keep them out of the sun altogether!
Wrapping it up: Sunscreen safety
I hope you’ve learned a little science and gotten some helpful information about which sunscreens are safest for your kids. Now that you’re better informed about sunscreens, go have some fun in the sun!