Let's face it, applying sunscreen is a chore, BUT it is an important one. We've used a lot of brands on ourselves, our babes, and our older kiddos over the years, both traditional and green. Name it? We've used it. Because this round-up concentrates on sunscreen for babies and kids, we honed in on recommending mineral-only ones containing either zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as well as a longer 80-minute water resistance window (with the exception of Burt's Bees Lip Balm and Blue Lizard Baby, both 40-minutes). Though mineral-based formulations may be more costly per fluid ounce, our opinion is that it is worth it for the littles. That said if this approach proves to be cost-prohibitive for your family, use of more traditional, chemical-based ones like Coppertone and Banana Boat are perfectly acceptable. The most important thing is to use something because nothing at all will lead to sunburn and skin damage, plain and simple. That said, our round-up recommendations have good broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and an EWG rating of 1. Read on for the ones we are quick to grab time and time again.
Best Sunscreen for Babies and Kids
SPF Rating: SPF 30 | Active Ingredient: Non-Nano Zinc Oxide 20%
Truth be told, TruKid Sunny Days Sport (available in 3.5 oz. only) is the sunscreen we reach for the most. Though thick, it rubs in nicely leaving behind a nice matte, unscented finish without greasy residue. With protective and moisturizing organic, plant-derived ingredients like aloe juice, sunflower oil, jojoba oil, cucumber extract, green tea oil, and pomegranate juice, we feel good about using this on the entire family.
Although TruKid advertises 80-minute water resistance, we encourage vigilant and generous reapplication to avoid sunburn, especially when swimming during the peak sun hours of between 10a to 4p. It may cause dry skin, so we encourage liberal use of a good natural moisturizer after bathing.
Though expensive, California Baby Super Sensitive (available in 1.8 oz., 2.9 oz., 6 oz., and 19 oz.) is a great choice for eczema and sensitive skin as it is a fragrance-free and broad-spectrum formulation with a water resistance of 80-minutes. For those with allergy concerns, it is free of gluten, oat, soy, and dairy as well as free of nuts with the exclusion of coconut, so it ticks a lot of boxes. In addition, it is in a league of its own as titanium dioxide is the only active ingredient; thus, if there is any reason your kiddo needs to avoid zinc oxide, this is the formula for them. Skin protective and moisturizing ingredients like extracts of calendula, pansy, and rosemary and oils of safflower and coconut are a bonus. This is a concentrated formula, so it will really last. For ease of application, follow the founder's application recommendations using the "dot technique". This basically entails placing a dime-sized amount on skin or fingers, then dotting it over sun-exposed skin before blending it evenly.
This is a very thick formulation, so be advised that a little goes a long way for full coverage. Be forewarned that it can be difficult to remove from leather, so application once outside of the house and car may be a good idea. Also, pay attention to the expiration date as it is too expensive to just leave lying around only to throw away a good portion of it.
SPF Rating: SPF 30+ | Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 10%, Titanium Dioxide 5%
There is a lot to love about Blue Lizard Baby (available in 3 oz., 5 oz., and 8.75 oz.) apart from its trademark bottle that turns color when exposed to UV; the deeper the pink color, the more UV rays are present. For one, it contains a mixture of active mineral ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) which is great for full spectrum UVA/UVB coverage. It is a great choice for sensitivities as it is free of fragrance and gluten. What we love best though is that it rubs in so easily for a mineral-based product; its loose oil-water emulsion consistency is not greasy or sticky. That's pretty awesome in our book. This brand is also available in a Blue Lizard Sensitive formulation with the same active ingredients, SPF rating, and performance, though the bottle will turn blue instead of pink with UV exposure.
Be aware that Blue Lizard is water resistant to 40-minutes only, so you must be vigilant with reapplying after towel drying when swimming, sweating, or any other water activity. Otherwise, reapplication every 2 hours is recommended. This formulation can separate, so it is important to shake the container well before use.
SPF Rating: SPF 50 | Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 21.6%
Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby (available in 3 oz. only) can be easily found over the counter at a local chain grocery or pharmacy which makes this mineral-based formulation with 80-minute water resistance a nice option when you haven't planned ahead with an online purchase. It applies easily and is comfortable for long days in the sun.
While its inactive ingredients are less natural, we feel it is a great option for a mainstream, easy to purchase brand at a good value. It will not rub in completely, that is a hallmark of a mineral-base. So, as long as you are aware of this, we think you will be happy with the results.
SPF Rating: SPF 15 | Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 11%
Burt's Bees All-Weather SPF 15 Moisturizing Lip Balm is a great all natural, zinc solution for keeping little lips protected from the sun. It is water resistant up to 40-minutes, so remember to reapply often when in water activities. With lots of healthy oils (olive, cocoa, jojoba, shea, meadowfoam, and soybean), it is a very moisturizing balm which will indeed help prevent chapping and cracking.
Because of its zinc base, it will have a creamy white appearance on the lips which may bother adults but for kids, this is really no big deal. To some, it may also have a tacky feel. Nonetheless, we love the natural ingredients and moisturizing quality of this balm with very effective UV protection.
SPF Rating: SPF 50+ | Active Ingredient: Non-Nano Zinc Oxide 20%
Thinksport Kids (available in 3oz. and 6oz.) is great for water play with an 80-minute water resistance window. Be aware that it takes some elbow grease in application due to its thick consistency, but we find that its gorgeous scent and effectiveness are worth the effort. It is also available in a Thinkbaby SPF 50+ version with the same base formulation which includes skin-centric ingredients like aloe juice and castor, sunflower, jojoba, olive, raspberry seed, and cranberry seed oils as well as Vitamins C and E.
For those with sensitive skin, we recommend spot testing prior to use. And, to ensure a thorough application of active ingredients, shake contents before slathering and reapply often as directed.
SPF Rating: SPF 50 | Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 10%, Titanium Dioxide 7.5%
Sunology Kids (available in 2 oz. only) is a fragrance-free formulation with both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for great broad-spectrum coverage as well as soybean and moringa seed oils and antioxidants for broader skin health. It has 80-minute water resistance. As with California Baby Super Sensitive, a little goes a long way. Those with darker skin comment that this formulation doesn't appear as tinted after application than other mineral-based brands.
Its main downfall is its high expense at around $7.40/oz. It only comes in one small 2 oz. tube, so it has a sweet spot for travel. Be aware that it goes on a tad greasy, but this improves with time.
SPF Rating: SPF 50 | Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 21.6%
Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Lotion (available in 3 oz. only) has pretty much the same ingredients as Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby with a water resistance of 80-minutes. The only significant difference is the addition of oat extract (colloidal oatmeal) for its skin nourishing effect. We include it in this list because it is a great option at the drugstore, so really cost may be the deciding factor. Any white residue will dissipate with a bit of time and a little extra rubbing.
Products that Didn't Make the Cut
There are a lot of sunscreen products for kids and babies, and we tested a great many. The mineral-based products listed below didn't make our recommended list because they were either just too darn greasy, too sticky, poorly breathable, and/or not effective enough for our liking.
- Alba Botanica
- All Good
- Babytime! by Episencial
- Bare Republic
- Goddess Garden Organics
- Honest Company
- Kiss My Face
- Nurture My Body
We recognize that these are popular products. In fact, all of them receive high scores in the Environmental Working Group's analysis of ingredients. Nonetheless, based on our hands-on testing, we regret to say that they didn't make the cut for this round-up.
How to Choose The Right Product for Your Kids
Sunscreens are always changing, but one thing will not: the need for complete sun protection, particularly during summertime when outdoor activity is at its peak nationwide. Before we delve into sunscreen basics, let us first go into further depth about the sun and very practical protective tips.
A Trifecta of Sun Facts
- The Difference Between UVA and UVB Rays — Ultraviolet radiation travels from the sun, penetrates the atmosphere, and reaches us on Earth via both UVA rays (long-wave, 320 to 400 nm) and UVB rays (shortwave, 290 to 320 nm). There are also even shorter UVC rays, however, these are absorbed by the ozone layer. Both UVA and UVB radiation contribute to skin aging and cancers (melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma) and also eye damage (cataracts, macular degeneration) and eye cancer (melanoma). UVA and UVB radiation both cause tanning but only UVB causes sunburn. So, just because you aren't sunburned, doesn't mean that your skin has had a good day if left unprotected. The other interesting difference about UVA is that it penetrates deeper through the skin than UVB. UVA affects keratinocytes, the origin of basal and squamous cell carcinomas. UVB peaks midday from 10a to 4p whereas UVA is present during all daylight hours as well as penetrates through glass, unlike UVB. This means that sun protection is important during all daylight hours, even when driving.
- Just Because it is Cloudy, Doesn't Mean You Get a Hallpass on the Sunscreen — Fact. UVA radiation penetrates through clouds and even reaches you when you are hiding in the shade. This is a real bummer because we all love hall passes. So, even though you may not feel the effects of the sun on a cloudy day, UVA rays still penetrate through to the dermal layer of your skin, cumulatively increasing your risk of developing skin cancer through the years. Day after day and year after year throughout life, this chronic exposure to UVA really adds up and matters greatly. The take-home point? Use sunscreen, always. Every day. Rain or shine. Clouds or snow. Warm or cold.
- Ultraviolet Radiation Affects the Eyes, Too — Though we've already stated this above, we want to highlight it here again because it is that important. UV radiation affects more than our skin, it can damage our eyes, in the long run, presenting later in life in the form of macular degeneration and cataracts, and rarely retinal melanoma. Thus, wearing UV protective sunglasses is equally important to protect vision and long-term eye health.
A Triple Defense is the Best Offense
Below is a triple defense of tangible lifestyle strategies for you to use in order to protect yourself and your family from the sun. Consider them a mantra to live by year-round for everyone in the family while you enjoy the great outdoors.
- Avoid Peak Exposure — Plan outdoor activities around peak sun exposure with 10a to 4p being the high-risk time of day.
- Cover Up — Covering up with a hat, sunglasses, and SPF clothing like a loose and light long sleeve shirt with hoody as well as pants is a great way to maximize skin protection. For comparison, consider a white t-shirt; dry it has an SPF rating of 7, but when wet this decreases to SPF 3. For swimming babies and toddlers, full-coverage swimsuits and shirts are great and bring peace of mind. Another good strategy is to either seek out shade or bring it with you when you are hanging out for awhile in the form of a pop-up tent or umbrella.
- Lather Up — Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to any exposed areas of skin 15 to 30 minutes BEFORE heading outdoor activity and/or swimming, whatever the weather and even if you will be in the shade. Use care to use enough and to reapply often, especially after getting in the water and/or towel drying. Even if you are shaded, use sunscreen. For example, even if you are at the beach well-shaded under an umbrella, you will still be exposed to reflective UV rays from sand and will leave yourself susceptible to a burn. Store bottles away from heat and direct sunlight when possible to maintain a formula's effectiveness.
Mineral-based and chemical-based formulations are very different both functionally and in their user experience. The active mineral ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, remain on top of the skin, physically blocking and scattering the sun's rays. They are very thick in consistency and despite best efforts to rub it all in, a whitish hue typically remains. Once applied, they can be either greasy or chalky which leaves a bit to be desired, but they work great and are safe for little skin. However, the creation of "invisible zinc", small nanoparticles, are smaller, lighter, and blend in better creating a less ghostly appearance. Some mineral formulations may separate slightly in the container requiring vigorous shaking before application to ensure a thorough layer of active ingredient is applied. When more thorough separation occurs such that shaking doesn't resolve the issue quickly, it is time to buy a fresh container.The Skinny on Non-Nano Zinc Oxide
Many zinc oxide containing sunscreens now list "non-nano zinc oxide" as a point of pride on their label, meaning that this active ingredient is greater than 100 microns in size. The assumption is that a particle this large cannot penetrate the skin's barrier and thus cannot be absorbed into the bloodstream. Does this really matter or is this just marketing hype? While the answer to this is steeped in controversy, the reality is that titanium dioxide, another active ingredient in many mineral-based sunscreens IS a nanoparticle AND it has been shown that it is not small enough to penetrate the skin's barrier. Furthermore, BOTH zinc oxide AND titanium dioxide are inert substances, meaning they are chemically inactive. They are also photostable meaning that their chemical composition is not changed by exposure to UV radiation. Bottom line is that zinc oxide whether it be nano or non-nano (as well as titanium dioxide) are safe for use in children's sunscreen.
Chemically based products utilize a combination of active ingredients, commonly avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and others, which are absorbed into the skin for protection. These are much thinner in consistency and easier to apply. Nonetheless, these types can be irritating to a baby or child's skin resulting in uncomfortable burning upon application to redness, rash, or dryness. Even adults with sensitive skin can develop allergic-type reactions and rashes to chemical active ingredients (oxybenzone being a prime culprit) and do much better with mineral-based ones. That said, some adults have success with avobenzone as an effective and less irritating chemical ingredient that offers good UVA protection.
Q & A: Sunscreen 101
Though we've already shared our favorite brands above, the following content below answers common questions regarding its general use as well as further depth to aid in label reading and selection. So, the next time you're standing in front of a large aisle of choice, instead of breaking out in a cold sweat, you can feel confident with your selection.
- At What Age Is It Safe To Use Sunscreen on a Baby? — The AAP recommends keeping babies less than 6 months of age out of the sun entirely due to the thinness and sensitivity of their skin. However, if this is unavoidable, then cover them up as much as possible and use mineral-based protection on any exposed areas like the face, even if your baby is wearing a hat. After 6 months of age, a mineral-based formulation product should routinely be used when outdoors.
- What is the Best Type: Lotion, Stick, or Spray? — Hands down, LOTION! With lotion, you can more easily control the quantity being used and how thick of an application is applied. A liberal layer should be used always. We hesitate to recommend stick-based protection due to the risk of not getting complete enough coverage in the form of missed spots and/or a thick enough application which can lead to unnecessary burning. However, sticks can have their place for spot application in tough areas like the back of the neck; just make sure get a thick, complete layer on there! Nonetheless, our real pet peeve with lies in aerosolized spray bottles. When deployed, there is always a finely aerosolized mist that dissipates downwind to any nearby innocent bystander. It truly reminds us of secondhand smoke, it is so noxious smelling. However, what is most concerning is that breathing this in can NOT be good for you and it certainly doesn't do anyone already suffering from asthma or allergies any favors. That said, people use sprays because they are easy. Parents hands don't get greasy when applying and the job gets done, right? Although the inhalational effect of aerosolized particulate matter frankly has not been studied to our knowledge, common sense points towards it not being a good thing, particularly to those with allergies and asthma as well as young respiratory systems. And, finally, from an effectiveness standpoint, sprays are lacking as they don't tend to be rubbed onto the skin once applied, often resulting in poor coverage and/or retention of product. As well, many are clear so it is difficult to ascertain coverage. Possible outcome? Sunburn city.
- Do I Really Need to Pay Attention to Water Resistance? — ABSOLUTELY! If a formulation is labeled with water resistance guidelines, follow them! Most have 80-minute water resistance, but every once in awhile one with 40-minute resistance will sneak through and paying attention will make a big difference. Let's face it, who wants to reapply sunscreen on a kiddo every 40-minutes?! The products we chose for selection in this round-up all have an 80-minute water resistance (with the exception of Blue Lizard which is geared toward dry activities. Nonetheless, after either sweating OR swimming for the duration of the resistance window, reapplication is necessary. That said, reapplications is always necessary after towel-drying. If neither swimming nor sweating, reapplication should occur every 2 hours. If water resistance is not stated on the label, as with Blue Lizard Baby, then an alternative water resistant one should be used for water-based activities.
- When Do I Need to Replace a Container? — When a container is past its expiration date, has become clumpy or separated, or smells rancid, it is time to toss and replace it. We understand that throwing out a half-used bottle of is painful, but this is not a place to cut corners. You can usually find the expiration date stamped out on the corrugated edge of a tube or on the bottom of a bottle.
- Which Level of SPF to Use? — SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor which is a measure of UVB protection. The SPF sweet spot is between 30 to 50. To illustrate this, consider the following: an SPF of 15 blocks 93% of UVB. An SFP of 30 blocks 97% of UVB. And, an SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB's rays. Simply put, past an SPF of 30, there are diminishing returns in protection. You've got to get a pretty good layer of higher SPF on your skin before you will gain additional yet limited benefit.
- What About UVA Protection? — Because SPF only correlates to UVB blockage, for adequate UVA protection use a broad spectrum formula, meaning one that offers adequate coverage from both UVA and UVB Rays. This is where label reading becomes important as for optimal UVA protection, it is important to have at least one and preferably a combination of the following active ingredients: zinc oxide (mineral), titanium dioxide (mineral), avobenzone (chemical), ecamsule (chemical), or oxybenzone (chemical). For mineral-based formulations, having either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide or a combination of both gets the job done for full-spectrum protection.
- What's the Scoop on Combination Sunscreen/Insect Repellant? — Our advice? Just Say No. Why? Simply put, they aren't as effective and use chemical-based active ingredients. In addition, sunscreen requires application on a more frequent basis than insect repellant, so there is a big disconnect here.
- Do the Type of Active Ingredients Matter? — In our opinion, when it comes to using sunscreen on babies and kids, our answer is a resounding "YES!" What makes them work are the active ingredients, either mineral, chemical, or a mixture of both. Paying attention to these fine print details is important to overall selection, particularly for those with sensitive skin.
When it comes to babies and kiddos, our opinion is that a mineral-based sunscreen in a lotion formulation is the way to go. Though this type usually takes some elbow-grease to apply and will leave a white residue, there is the peace of mind that it remains ON the skin and is not absorbed INTO the skin. That said, if mineral-based ones are cost-prohibitive for your family, use of a chemical-based formulation like Coppertone or Banana Boat, for instance, is much better than nothing at all. We really can not stress this enough. In addition, since there are typically many active and inactive ingredients in any product, we recommend spot testing a new brand prior to use in the event of skin sensitivity. As always, remember the use of triple defense as well to maximize sun protection. Cover up with a hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts, and pants and don't forget the protective lip balm.
— Juliet Spurrier, MD