7 Tips For Finding The Safest Sunscreens For Kids—Plus The Best Brands To Buy

Have burning questions about what’s safe or not for your child? We’ve got science-backed answers.

May 23, 2017
kids applying sunscreen
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There’s a lot of fake news floating around about sunscreen, from what SPF is best to whether it needs to have (or not have) certain ingredients. “There are some systematic problems with the way sunscreen is sold and explained to the public,” says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). And the misinformation is starting to burn: A study in the journal Pediatrics revealed that at least 50 percent of kids experience a sunburn before age 11. Not great news, since that’s one thing we are all clear on: Getting a sunburn as a kid can increase the risk for skin cancer, including melanoma, later in life. (Check out these 12 natural cures for scorching sunburns.)

To help clear up the confusion, the EWG just released their latest guide to sunscreens, an all-encompassing breakdown of what products are best and how to properly put on ray-blocking lotion.

Here’s exactly what you need to know so you can protect your kiddos and enjoy the summer weather without sunburn stress. 

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sunscreen bottles
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What to know when shopping

Unless you're a chemist, shopping for a safe sunscreen can be completely overwhelming. Here's how to hone in on the healthiest options.

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You don’t have to stock up on kid- and baby-friendly products—the adult formulas are just fine for little ones. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have specific criteria or additional requirements for sunscreen marketed to babies and kids, and “the EWG hasn’t identified any systematic differences between the types of products marketed to children and adults,” Lunder says, who was also the lead scientist on the EWG’s 2017 sunscreen guide. The only catch is that brands may be more likely to make mineral and fragrance-free options for kids (we’ll get into that more below).

Go low with the SPF 

Figuring out what SPF (sun protection factor) you should use can feel like a straight-up numbers game. And when it comes to protecting kids’ vulnerable skin, it’s easy to want to grab the 100+. “Higher numbers actually mislead people by making it seem like those products offer more protection than they do,” Lunder says, who adds that the EWG’s report found the number of high-SPF products on the market continue to rise. “The SPF number may be increasing, but the extra protection is actually negligible. For example, when applied properly, an SPF 50 sunscreen will block 98 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF 100 will block 99 percent.” You don’t need anything higher than 50. (Check out the 5 worst skincare mistakes you're making.)

Reach for a lotion

Squeeze it, spray it, sweep it—there are a variety of sunscreen options. But when it comes to kids, you should go for the goopy white stuff in a bottle. “It’s best to avoid sprays for children,” Lunder says. “The ingredients in them are really irritating to both kid and adult lungs.” Another reason the EWG’s findings gave sunscreen sprays the smack down—it’s hard to make sure you’re properly covered because the clear, invisible application won’t help you see what areas you may have missed. 

Know your ingredients

There are two types of sunscreens on the market: chemical-based and mineral. The latter uses zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are stable in the sunlight, offer a good balance of protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation, and don’t contain potentially harmful additives, Lunder explains. 

Related: 15 Foods That Fight Sunburn

Chemically formulated sunscreens, may break down when exposed to UV light if not formulated well, and contain two to eight ingredients. “One ingredient we’re worried about in chemical sunscreens is called oxybenzone,” Lunder says. “It’s a hormone disrupter, and there is no end to the tricks they can play on our bodies, including telling cells to die prematurely to competing with essential nutrients.” The EWG recommends steering clear of any lotions that list it on the label.

And another add-in that you may be misled by: Vitamin A. Sure, it sounds good-for-you—a highly powerful antioxidant. But actually, according to the EWG, research has found that animals who had creams applied that had Vitamin A in them and then spent time in the sun developed lesions on their skin. (A bright spot of news: The EWG’s report revealed that the majority of blockers dropped Vitamin A from their ingredients—only 14 percent of the products surveyed listed it as an ingredient.)

Related: 5 Skin Cancer Warning Signs That Are Incredibly Easy To Overlook

Instead, opt for a mineral option that uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. “They don’t penetrate through the skin, so there’s no concern with how they may affect organs,” Lunder says. They’re also non-allergic, which is great for sensitive skin. “The concentration of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide should increase along with the SPF,” Lunder says. “Beware of products with very high labeled SPF and low concentrations of minerals.” That means they must be using other “inactive” ingredients to boost the SPF value. 

mom applying sunscreen to daughter
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What to know when applying

Because sunscreen only works when you know how to work it. 

It’s safe for (most) children

Whether your kid tans nicely or will only be outside for 20 minutes, he or she needs to be greased up with sunscreen. The only time you wouldn’t put it on your child is if they’re under two months of age, says Andy Bernstein, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. In that case, your bub will need to cool it in the shade.

You need to reapply often

Here’s the rub: You need to slather on sunscreen every two hours, Bernstein says. You can burn within 15 minutes of being outside, and sun damage cannot be undone. 

Related: This Is The Best-Selling Facial Sunscreen On Amazon—And It’s Totally Nontoxic

Also, the EWG’s research points out that sunscreens are no longer allowed to label themselves as waterproof, so if you’ve been swimming or sweating, even if it hasn’t been two hours you need to coat yourself with another application of the creamy stuff. 

Wear sunscreen—and a shirt

“You need to have a realistic sense of sunscreen's abilities,” Lunder says, and that starts with understanding that even the best practices may not be able to completely protect you from harmful UVA rays. So in addition to sunscreen, kids should wear a splash guard, spend as much time in the shade as possible, and since you can’t apply sunscreen to your eyes, rock a pair of shades.

Related: 6 Surprising Things That Up Your Risk For Skin Cancer

aveeno baby sunscreen
Photograph courtesy of Amazon
The five best sunscreens for kids—and 5 to avoid

Here are 5 highly-rated sunscreens from the EWG’s guide—and five to avoid.

The Good

1. Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 50; $26 for 3 on Amazon
2. California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen, SPF 30+; $39 on Amazon
3. Kiss My Face Organics Kids Sunscreen, SPF 30; $14 on Amazon
4. Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 50; $12 on Amazon
5. ThinkSport Kids Sunscreen, SPF 50+; $10 on Amazon

The Bad

1. Banana Boat Kids Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
2. Coppertone Sunscreen Lotion Kids, SPF 70
3. CVS Health Children’s Sunstick Sunscreen, SPF 60+
4. Neutrogena Wet Skin Kids Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70+
5. Up & Up Kids Sunscreen Sticks, SPF 55

Consider this your burn notice.