Applying sunscreen is an important necessary chore. We've researched and used more than 15 contenders on our babies and kids to find the best options on the market for little ones. This round-up concentrates on sunscreen for babies and kids, so we've honed in on mineral-only options containing either zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, as well as a longer-lasting water resistance products. The most important consideration for sunscreens is to use something because using nothing will lead to sunburns and skin damage. Our round-up recommendations have good broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and an EWG rating of 1. Read on for the products we choose for our little ones.
Best Sunscreen for Babies and Kids
TruKid Sunny Days Sport (available in 3.5 oz only) is the option we reach for most of the time. Though thick, it rubs in quickly, leaving a matte, unscented finish without any greasy residue. With protective, moisturizing, organic, plant-derived ingredients like aloe juice, sunflower oil, jojoba oil, cucumber extract, green tea oil, and pomegranate juice, we feel good using this product on the entire family.
Although TruKid advertises an 80-minute water-resistance, we encourage vigilant and generous reapplication to avoid sunburn, especially when swimming or playing during peak sun hours (10 am to 4 pm). It can cause dry skin for some, so we recommend the liberal use of a quality natural moisturizer after bathing.
Though expensive, California Baby Super Sensitive is a great choice for eczema and sensitive skin as it is a fragrance-free with a broad-spectrum formulation and a water resistance of 80-minutes. For those with allergies, it is free of gluten, oat, soy, and dairy, as well as nuts with the exclusion of coconut, so it ticks most boxes. Also, it is unique as titanium dioxide is the only active ingredient, so if there is any reason your kiddo needs to avoid zinc oxide, this is the product for them. Skin protective and moisturizing ingredients like extracts of calendula, pansy, rosemary, and oils of safflower and coconut are a bonus. While expensive, this lotion is a concentrated formula that lasts longer than you think. For ease of application, follow the founder's recommendations using the "dot technique". This process entails placing a dime-sized amount on skin or fingers, then dotting it over sun-exposed skin before blending in.
This lotion is a very thick formulation, so be advised that a little goes a long way for full coverage. Be forewarned that it is challenging to remove from leather, so applying outside of the house and car is a must. Also, pay attention to the expiration date, as it is too expensive to throw away.
There is a lot to love about Blue Lizard Baby apart from its trademark bottle that turns color when exposed to UV. 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 good choice for sensitivities as it is free of fragrance and gluten. What we love best is that it rubs in easily (especially for a mineral-based product), and its oil-water emulsion consistency is not greasy or sticky. This brand is also available in a Blue Lizard Sensitive formulation with the same active ingredients, SPF rating, and performance.
Be aware that Blue Lizard is water-resistant for only 40-minutes, so you must be vigilant about reapplying after towel drying when swimming, sweating, or any other water activity. Otherwise, we recommend reapplication every 2 hours. Also, this formulation can separate, so it is essential to shake the container well before use.
Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby is easy to find online and in stores, which makes this mineral-based formula with an 80-minute water resistance an excellent option. 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 thoroughly, which is a hallmark of a mineral-base. So, as long as you don't mind the white, we think you'll be happy with the results.
Burt's Bees All-Weather SPF 15 Moisturizing Lip Balm is an 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 playing in the water. With lots of healthy oils (olive, cocoa, jojoba, shea, meadowfoam, and soybean), it is a very moisturizing balm that helps prevent chapping and cracking lips.
Because of its zinc base, it has a creamy white appearance, which can be annoying, but this typically isn't a problem for kids. 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.
Thinksport Kids is excellent for water play with an 80-minute water resistance window. It takes some elbow grease during application due to its thick consistency, but we find that its lovely scent and effectiveness are worth the added 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 before use to avoid a potential all over skin reaction. Also, to ensure a thorough application of active ingredients, shake contents before slathering and reapply as directed.
Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Lotion has similar ingredients to Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby with a water resistance of 80-minutes. The only significant difference is oat extract (colloidal oatmeal) for skin-nourishing. We include it here because it is a good drugstore option so that the cost will be the deciding factor. Any white residue will dissipate with time and extra rubbing. Those with a gluten allergy or Celiac may want to steer clear, as some are sensitive to oat containing skin products.
Products that Didn't Make the Cut
There are a lot of products for kids and babies, and we tested a bunch. The mineral-based products below didn't make our list because they are either too greasy, too sticky, not breathable, 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. All of them receive high scores in the Environmental Working Group's analysis of ingredients. However, based on our hands-on testing, they struggled in side-by-side comparisons with our chosen favorites.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our test team is comprised of outdoor lovers who enjoy their time in the sun and want to avoid all the negative things associated with it. The team is lead by BabyGearLab founder, Dr. Juliet Spurrier, a board-certified pediatrician, Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and mother of two. Dr. Spurrier uses her background as a mother and skills as a pediatrician to help guide her product choices, focusing on safety and efficacy. Senior Review Editor, Wendy Schmitz, rounds out the team. Wendy has a degree in biology and is a mother of two. She uses her education to help research ingredients and safety from a scientific perspective, as well as from a mother's point of view and how her children feel about the different lotions. With a little one who has Celiac disease, Wendy has a keen eye for products with fewer ingredients and those suitable for sensitive skin or allergies that are also easy to use and budget-friendly.
How to Choose the Right Product for Your Kids
Products are always changing, but one thing will not, the need for complete sun protection, particularly during the summertime when outdoor activity abounds. Before we delve into screening basics, let's dig deep into the sun and practical protective tips.
A Trifecta of Sun Facts
To understand why protecting your skin is so important, you need to know more about the sun and UVA and UVB rays.
- The Difference Between UVA and UVB Rays — Ultraviolet radiation travels from the sun, penetrates the atmosphere, and reaches us on Earth via UVA rays (long-wave, 320 to 400 nm) and UVB rays (shortwave, 290 to 320 nm). There are also even shorter UVC rays. However, the ozone layer absorbs these. Both UVA and UVB radiation contribute to skin aging and cancers (melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma), eye damage (cataracts, macular degeneration), and eye cancer (melanoma). UVA and UVB radiation both cause tanning, but only the UVB causes sunburn. So, just because you aren't sunburned, it 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 from 10 am to 4 pm, whereas UVA is present during all daylight hours and penetrates through glass, unlike UVB. These factors mean that sun protection is vital during all daylight hours, even when driving.
- Cloudy, Doesn't Give You a Hall Pass on Sunscreen — Fact. UVA radiation penetrates through clouds and can even reach you when you hide in the shade. This fact is a bummer because who doesn't love a 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 over time. Day after day, and year after year, this chronic exposure to UVA adds up and matters. The take-away? Use sunscreen, always. Every day. Rain or shine. Clouds or snow. Warm or cold.
- Ultraviolet Radiation Affects the Eyes — Though we've already stated it, we want to highlight it again because it is that important. UV radiation affects more than our skin; in the long run, it can damage your eyes, presenting later in life as macular degeneration, cataracts, and occasionally retinal melanoma. Thus, wearing UV protective sunglasses is essential to protect vision and long-term eye health.
A Triple Defense is the Best Offense
Below is the triple defense of lifestyle strategies to protect yourself and your family from the harmful effects of the sun. Consider them a year-round mantra for your family whenever you enjoy the great outdoors.
- Avoid Peak Exposure — Plan outdoor activities around peak sun exposure (10 am to 4 pm is the high-risk window).
- Cover-Up — Covering up with a hat, sunglasses, and SPF clothing like a loose and light long sleeve shirt with a hood, as well as pants, is a great way to maximize skin protection. For comparison, a dry white t-shirt has an SPF rating of 7, but when wet, this decreases to SPF 3. For swimming babies and toddlers, full-coverage swimsuits and shirts can provide peace of mind. Another strategy is to find shade or bring it with you in the form of a pop-up tent or umbrella.
- Slather Up — Apply lotion with an SPF of 30 or higher to any exposed skin 15 to 30 minutes BEFORE outdoor activity and/or swimming, in all kinds of weather, even if you utilize shade. Be sure to use plenty and often reapply, especially after water exposure and/or towel drying. Even if you stay in the shade, you must lotion up. For example, if you sit under a well-shaded umbrella at the beach, you are still exposed to reflective UV rays from sand and water and will be leaving yourself susceptible to sunburn. Always store bottles away from heat and direct sunlight when possible to maintain a formula's effectiveness.
Mineral-based and chemical-based formulas are different in functionally and in user experience. The active mineral ingredients, zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide remain on top of the skin, acting as a physical blocker and scattering the sun's rays. They are thick, and despite best efforts to rub it all in, a whitish hue usually remains as they do not absorb into the skin. Once applied, they can be greasy or chalky, but they work great and are safe for children. However, the creation of "invisible zinc," small nanoparticles, are smaller, lighter, and blend in easier, creating a less white final appearance. Some mineral formulations can separate somewhat in the container requiring adequate shaking before application to ensure that the active ingredient is part of the application. When significant separation occurs, and shaking doesn't resolve the issue quickly, it is time to buy a new container.The Skinny on Non-Nano Zinc Oxide
Many zinc oxide containing products now list "non-nano zinc oxide" as a point of pride. This claim means that the Zinc active ingredient is greater than 100 microns in size. The assumption is that a particle of this size can't penetrate the skin's barrier, and thus, won't be absorbed into the bloodstream. Does this matter, or is it marketing hype? While the answer is steeped in controversy, the reality is that titanium dioxide, another active ingredient in many mineral-based options 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 the chemical composition doesn't change with exposure to UV radiation. The bottom line is zinc oxide, whether nano or non-nano (as well as titanium dioxide), are safe for use with children.
Chemically based products utilize a combination of active ingredients like avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and others that protect by absorbing into the skin. These products are thinner and easier to apply. Nonetheless, this type can be irritating to a baby or child's skin resulting in uncomfortable burning, redness, rash, or dryness. Even adults with sensitive skin can develop allergic-type reactions and rashes to active chemical ingredients (oxybenzone being the main culprit) and have better luck with mineral-based ones. That said, some adults have success with avobenzone as an effective and less irritating ingredient that offers good UVA protection. Also, these chemicals can be absorbed into the skin and are known endocrine disrupters that can cause potential health problems.
Q & A: Sun Combating Lotions 101
Though we've shared our favorite options, the following information helps answer common questions about general use, label reading, and selection. So, the next time you're faced with a large lotion selection, instead of bursting out in a cold sweat, you can feel confident about your selection.
- What Age is it Safe to Use Sunscreen on a Baby? — The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping babies under six months completely out of the sun due to skin thinness and sensitivity. However, if this is unavoidable, then cover their skin as much as possible and use mineral-based protection on exposed areas, even if they are wearing a hat. After six months old, you should routinely use a mineral-based product when your baby is outside.
- What is the Best Type: Lotion, Stick, or Spray? — Hands down, LOTION! Lotion allows you to control the quantity easily. You should always use a thick layer. We don't recommend stick-based protection as it can be challenging to get full coverage or a thick enough layer, which can result in unintentional sunburns. However, sticks can be useful for spot application for hard to reach areas; make sure to apply a thick, complete layer to the area! Our real pet peeve is with aerosolized spray bottles. When deployed, it always transmits a finely aerosolized mist downwind to innocent bystanders. It reminds us of secondhand smoke, as it is so noxious. However, what is most concerning is that breathing in aerosolized products can NOT be good for you, and it can be even more troubling for those who suffer from asthma or allergies. That said, people continue to use sprays because they are easy. Hands don't get greasy, and the job gets done, right? Although the inhalational of aerosolized particulates have not been studied to our knowledge, common sense indicates it is not a good thing, particularly for anyone that suffers from allergies and asthma, as well as young or impaired respiratory systems. Finally, sprays are lacking as most folks don't rub them onto the skin once applied, which can make them less useful as it often results in inadequate coverage and/or product retention. Also, many sprays are clear, so it is challenging to determine coverage adequacy. Possible outcome? Sunburn city.
In our research, we discovered incidents of the use of aerosolized sunscreen resulting in fire burns. Skin covered in wet sunscreen has started on fire after exposure to a fire source. Unfortunately, the bottles are not adequately labeled concerning this potential outcome. The burns happen after the application of the aerosolized lotion in proximity to a fire source. Known incidents occurred near a heated BBQ, citronella candle, and cigarette lighter. While the reports are limited and potentially rare, it is our opinion that this is yet another reason to avoid aerosolized products, especially on children.
- Do I Need to Pay Attention to Water Resistance? — ABSOLUTELY! If a formulation label has water resistance guidelines, follow them! Most have 80-minute water resistance, but every once in awhile one with 40-minute resistance pop up and paying attention can make a significant difference on whether or not your little one gets burned. No one wants to reapply lotion every 40-minutes! The products we chose for this round-up have an 80-minute water resistance (except for Blue Lizard, which we recommend for dry activities). Nonetheless, after sweating OR swimming for the resistance window duration, reapplication is necessary. Reapplication is also essential after towel-drying, which can inadvertently remove the lotion. If neither swimming nor sweating, reapplication should occur every 2 hours. If a water resistance limit is not on the label, as with Blue Lizard Baby, then an alternative water-resistant option would be better for water-based activities. Pay special attention to areas where rubbing can occur, like the upper arms when wearing a lifevest.
- When Do I Need to Replace My Sunscreen? — When the product is past its expiration date, has become clumpy or separated, or smells strange, it is time to toss it. We know that throwing out a non-empty bottle is painful, but this isn't a good time to cut corners. You can find the expiration date on the corrugated edge or the bottom of a tube/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.
- What About UVA Protection? — SPF correlates to UVB blockage, so for adequate UVA protection, you need to use a broad-spectrum formula, meaning one that provides sufficient coverage from UVA and UVB Rays. This need is where label reading is vital. For optimal UVA protection, it is essential 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 (those we prefer and recommended here), having zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination will work for full-spectrum protection.
- Should I Use a Combination Sunscreen/Insect Repellant? — Our advice? Just Say No. Why? They aren't as effective and typically use chemical-based active ingredients we d. Also, sunscreen requires more frequent applications than repellants. This big disconnect feels unnecessary and exposes little ones to higher concentrations of chemicals than are necessary.
- Does the Type of Active Ingredients Matter? — In our opinion, the ingredients matter, especially when choosing for children. Sunscreen's active ingredients include mineral, chemical, or a combination. Paying attention to details is vital to your overall pick, particularly for sensitive skin and developing babies.
When it comes to little ones, our opinion is that a mineral-based sunscreen in a lotion formulation is the best choice. Though this type of sunscreen can take some elbow-grease to apply and can leave a white residue, we like that it remains ON the skin and is not absorbed INTO the skin. If mineral-based products are cost-prohibitive, the use of a chemical-based formulation, like Coppertone or Banana Boat, is far better than skipping sunscreen protection. We really can't stress this enough. Also, since there are typically several active and inactive ingredients in any product, we recommend doing a spot test with any new product to determine any skin sensitivity. As always, remember to practice triple defense to maximize sun protection. This defense includes covering up with a hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts, and pants, and protective lip balm.
Sunscreen is a necessity for delicate baby skin, and it is the best way to help avoid the determinantal effects of the sun. You may not have given it too much thought in the past, but now that you have a little one to protect, it should be foremost in your mind before hitting adventures in the great outdoors. We think this roundup of potential contenders is a great place to find the right sunscreen for your goals and budget. With chemical-free options and products for sensitive skin, there is something for everyone on this list.
— Juliet Spurrier, MD