Sunscreen on Infants and Babies (FAQ)

A light breeze, the scent of the barbecue, warmer days. It only means one thing: summer is coming! Finally, winter is behind us. Time to shake loose the cabin fever and have fun in the sun. Those long, sun-filled days await.

But before we head out to the pool or beach, it’s time to apply the sunscreen. Protect your baby’s skin from the rays and keep on playing.

Are you worried about what and how to apply? Looking for alternatives to traditional sunscreens? Before kicking off summer, take a quick look at some of the most common questions we’ve heard about sun protection.

Does my Baby Need Sunscreen?

I’ll keep it short and sweet. Yes. The truth is that most sunscreens are safe. There have been some warnings recently (more to come on that) about the absorption of sunscreens through the skin. But what it comes down to is protecting that little bundle of joy from skin cancer. The best way to prevent skin cancer, of course, is with a quality sunscreen. Most experts will agree that minimizing the risk of skin cancer outweighs most concerns over the use of sunscreens.

So, before putting that sunscreen away, keep these figures in mind. There are more diagnoses of skin cancer in the U.S. every year than all other cancers combined. The risks are real. However, skin cancer is preventable.

Can I put sunscreen on an infant?

This will depend upon the age of your infant. The FDA recommends not applying sunscreen to infants under six months of age. Why? Because the skin in young infants is far from mature. Particularly, they are also more prone to absorbing the chemicals in sunscreens due to the high surface area to body weight ratio of their skin.

For infants this young, the best recommendation is to keep them covered and out of the sun. If you’re at the beach or pool, find an umbrella to keep baby shaded. Use protective clothing like wide-brimmed hats and cool, long-sleeved sun shirts to protect against the ultraviolet rays. Additionally, avoid exposure when the sun is at its highest, from late morning into mid-afternoon.

Once your baby is six months of age, you should feel safe in applying sunscreen. Apply liberally and take care not to overlook tender spots like the ears and nose. Use sunscreens that contain either zinc oxide or titanium oxide to prevent skin irritation. Do these ingredients sound familiar? Probably, because they are often found in many popular diaper creams and ointments.

How often should I apply sunscreen to my baby?

Typically, you should apply sunscreen to your baby every two hours to ensure continuing coverage. However, if your baby is in the water or has been sweating, reapply sooner. Remember, only use sunscreen once your baby is at least six months of age.

Always check the label, too. Since preparations vary by manufacturer, it’s a good idea to know the recommendations for your brand. Also, some of the natural preparations may not last as long, either. Be mindful and knowledgeable of the product you are using.

Do UVA and UVB protection matter?

Two types of ultraviolet radiation affect our skin: UVA and UVB.

UVA represents the majority of ultraviolet rays that reach the earth from the sun. UVA is significant because of its prevalence. It can also penetrate clouds and glass, and exposures are consistent at all times of the year. While scientists once believed that UVA only played a part in photo-aging of the skin, they now concur that it can cause skin cancers.

On the other hand, UVB radiation is not as prevalent as UVA. However, it is most responsible for sunburns. UVB also plays a key role in the formation of skin cancers. Unlike UVA, UVB rays cannot penetrate glass. But, just like UVA, UVB rays are noticeable year round. They are especially dangerous around reflective materials, like snow and water.

Since both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancers, look for a sunscreen with the wording “broad spectrum protection” on the label. Fortunately for babies, zinc and titanium oxides both block most forms of UVA and UVB radiation.

Are there any chemicals in common sunscreens that I should watch out for?

Recently, there has been increasing media coverage on the safety of chemicals used in sunscreens. A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association has brought these concerns to the public forum.

The four chemicals of concern are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule.

Some members of the medical community believe that oxybenzone could disrupt hormones in the body or lead to cancer. Is this a concern? Possibly. There have been insufficient studies and testing so far to validate these claims. Oxybenzone may also cause coral bleaching and coral death. So, when bathing in environmentally sensitive areas, be aware of this.

On the other hand, avobenzone appears to be safe, but unfortunately breaks down within thirty minutes of application. Many sunscreens combine avobenzone with octocrylene. Why? Because octocrylene stabilizes avobenzone and allows it to retain its protective properties longer. However, some studies indicate that octocrylene could disrupt the endocrine system.

Likewise, limited medical studies also perceive ecamsule as an endocrine disruptor. However, ecamsule is not as popular as other ingredients and is less likely to be an ingredient in most commercial sunscreens.

So, who do you trust? Many physicians continue to recommend the use of sunscreens containing these ingredients. Why? Because there has not been enough testing to determine the health risks these chemicals pose to humans. Simply stated, the jury is still out on these ingredients.

Which are the recommended sunscreens for use on an infant or baby?

For infants over six months of age, stick with the tried and true sunscreens. Since babies have thinner skin, and absorb products through the skin faster, avoid chemical sunscreens. Stick with the physical sunscreen agents containing either zinc oxide or titanium oxide. Why? Because these ingredients are known to be safe when used on infants. They are also unlikely to cause skin irritation. You’ll recognize these sunscreens because they leave the trademark white barrier on the skin.

For your little one’s body, use a cream or paste. Around delicate areas, like the face, opt for a roll-on type stick that goes on without dripping into the eyes or mouth.

As a precaution, parents should avoid using sunscreens containing oxybenzone.

On a positive note, most physicians are in agreement that zinc and titanium oxides make for the safest and some of the most effective sunscreens on the market. As a parent, that’s the vote of confidence we are looking for in any product that comes into contact with our little ones.

What about using “Natural” sunscreens?

Sunscreen products touting their natural or organic ingredients will always catch a parent’s eye. But what exactly are they? For the most part, they are mineral-based sunscreens or non-mineral sunscreens that don’t list oxybenzone as an ingredient.

If you’ve been paying attention, then you will recall that the mineral-based sunscreens include either zinc oxide or titanium oxide. Both are safe to use on babies, and are not absorbed through the skin.

However, there is a newer belief in the natural product markets about particle size. If you hear “nanoparticles,” it is referring to the size of the particles making up the product. For instance, a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter in size. That is a very small particle. Why the fuss? Because sunscreen manufacturers want a natural product, like zinc or titanium oxide, to go on with no residue.

Remember that white coating that zinc and titanium oxides leave behind? That’s because the particles are large enough to remain on the surface of the skin. But manufacturers are now designing these products at the nanoparticle level. This is in response to consumer demand for a natural product that goes on clear. Unfortunately, when manufactured at the nanoparticle size, zinc and titanium oxide sunscreens are more likely to be absorbed through the skin.

There have been no studies that have shown negative health risks associated with the absorption of zinc or titanium dioxide through the skin. Still, if this is a concern, opt for sunscreens with “non-nano” written on the label.

The bottom line is this: always read labels. A claim of “organic” or “natural” on a sunscreen does not necessarily mean one product is better than another. Furthermore, you may be paying extra for a product that contains ingredients identical to less expensive sunscreens.

What are natural oil sunscreens?

A growing number of plant-based oil sunscreens are now available. Upon face value, they all appear safe enough. However, even naturally derived oils can pose health effects. In infants, there always exists the potential for an allergic reaction. Likewise, family members may also be sensitive to these products.

Some of the most popular natural oils include red raspberry (with an SPF up to 50) and carrot seed oil (with an SPF up to 40). But did you know that some natural zinc oxide brands also contain these ingredients? It’s possible to derive the beneficial antioxidant properties of natural oils without going overboard.

If you do opt for these types of oils as a sunscreen, pay close attention to the SPF rating. Many, if not most, of those oils offer an SPF protection of under 20. Many of these oils may also contain allergens, depending upon the refining process of the oils.

Little testing has proven the benefits of these products when used alone. Therefore, parents should use caution in relying upon them solely as sunscreens. Instead, use formulas that include them as part of the ingredients along with zinc oxide, which is safe and effective on a baby’s skin.

Are spray-on sunscreens safe?

Spray-on sunscreens are convenient. A few passes will wrap your baby in an SPF barrier. However, sprays offer less control over the application. Since that overspray will likely end up in your baby’s eyes, mouth, and nose, it’s best to avoid these applications. Also, you will still need to rub them into the skin to ensure complete coverage. For safest applications, stick with cream or paste sunscreens.

Alternative Sunscreen Methods and Products

For parents looking to supplement their sunscreen regimen, or for infants under six months of age, plenty of alternatives are available. Consider these options for enjoying time outdoors with your infant:

  • Use an umbrella to provide shade. Not only is it a good source of protection, but it will also offer privacy and protection from the wind. A brightly colored umbrella is also a sure way to allow older children to find you in crowded public places, like beaches.
  • Wear hats. They’re stylish and cute. And they also offer added protection for your baby. Look for a wide brim that will protect the face and those tender spots, like the ears and nose.
  • Clothe your baby in sun protection (UPF) clothing. These clothes are gaining in popularity because they work. Light and breathable, they will protect your baby from UV radiation while keeping their skin cool. They are also designed to work when wet, making them an excellent choice to wear in the pool or at the beach. Look for clothing with a minimum 30 UPF factor. The UPF factor is identical in protection to the SPF factor in sunscreens.
  • Minimize exposure to the sun. While easier said than done when out and about, be sure to take breaks in the shade. Also remember that babies tend to dehydrate faster. When outside, be sure to provide plenty of fluids. A dehydrated baby will burn faster.
  • Don’t forget the shades. Protect baby’s eyes from harmful UV rays. It’s another way to keep baby safe and looking stylish when out and about.
  • Sun protection isn’t just for summer. Winter is also a prime time for exposure, especially with the reflectivity of snow. If you live at high altitudes, also take precautions. The thinner atmosphere will likely mean faster sunburn times for you and baby alike.