While applying sunscreen can be a chore, it is an important one. We've used several brands on ourselves, our babes, and our older kiddos over the years, both traditional and green. Name it, and we've likely used it. 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 80-minute water resistance window (except for Burt's Bees Lip Balm and Blue Lizard Baby, both 40-minutes). Mineral-based formulations are typically more costly per fluid ounce, but in our opinion, being chemical-free is worth the additional expense for the littles. That said, if this approach proves to be cost-prohibitive for your family, the use of more traditional, chemical-based products like Coppertone and Banana Boat are perfectly acceptable. The most important consideration when it comes to sunscreen is to use something because using nothing at all will lead to sunburns and skin damage, plain and simple. Our round-up recommendations have good broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and an EWG rating of 1. Read on for the options we grab time and time again.
Best Sunscreen for Babies and Kids
SPF Rating: SPF 30 | Active Ingredient: Non-Nano Zinc Oxide 20%
TruKid Sunny Days Sport (available in 3.5 oz only) is the product 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 10 am to 4 pm. It may cause dry skin, so we encourage the 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. Also, 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 lotion is a concentrated formula, so it will last longer than you think. For ease of application, follow the founder's application 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 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 challenging 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 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 is that it rubs in easily (especially for a mineral-based product). Its loose oil-water emulsion consistency is not greasy or sticky, which is 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, but the bottle will turn blue instead of pink with UV exposure.
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, reapplication every 2 hours is recommended. Also, this formulation can separate, so it is essential 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 easily be found over the counter at a local chain grocery or pharmacy, which makes this mineral-based formula with an 80-minute water resistance an excellent 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 thoroughly, which is a hallmark of a mineral-base. So, as long as you are aware, 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 that helps prevent chapping and cracking lips.
Because of its zinc base, it will have a creamy white appearance on the lips, which may bother adults, but this typically isn't a big deal 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.
SPF Rating: SPF 50+ | Active Ingredient: Non-Nano Zinc Oxide 20%
Thinksport Kids (available in 3 oz and 6 oz) is excellent for water play with an 80-minute water resistance window. Be aware that 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.
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 time and extra rubbing.
Products that Didn't Make the Cut
There are a lot of sunscreen products for kids and babies, and we tested a large variety. The mineral-based products listed below didn't make our recommended list because they are either too 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. All of them receive high scores in the Environmental Working Group's analysis of ingredients. However, based on our hands-on testing, they didn't make the cut for this round-up.
Why You Should Trust Us
Our sun team is comprised of outdoor lovers who enjoy their time in the sun and want to avoid all the negative things that come 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 education to help guide her product choices with safety and efficacy in mind. Senior Review Editor, Wendy Schmitz, rounds out the team. Wendy has a degree in biology and is a mother of two. Wendy 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 good 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 is at its peak. Before we delve into sunscreen basics, let's go into further depth about 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 the UVA and UVB rays it emits.
- 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), and 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 midday from 10 is to 4 pm, whereas UVA is present during all daylight hours as well as penetrates through glass, unlike UVB. These factors mean that sun protection is essential during all daylight hours, even when driving.
- Just Because it is Cloudy, Doesn't Mean You Get a Hall Pass on the Sunscreen — Fact. UVA radiation penetrates through clouds and even reaches you when you are hiding in the shade. This fact 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 adds up and greatly matters. The take-away? Use sunscreen, always. Every day. Rain or shine. Clouds or snow. Warm or cold.
- Ultraviolet Radiation Also Affects the Eyes — Though we've already stated this, we want to highlight it 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 to use to protect yourself and your family from the sun. Consider them a year-round mantra for everyone in your family while you enjoy the great outdoors.
- Avoid Peak Exposure — Plan outdoor activities around peak sun exposure with 10 am to 4 pm 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 a hoodie, 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 are great and bring peace of mind. Another good strategy is to seek out shade or bring it with you when you are hanging out 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 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 in the shade, you must slather up. For example, if you are at the beach under a well-shaded umbrella, you will still be exposed to reflective UV rays from sand and will be leaving yourself susceptible to sunburn. Store bottles away from heat and direct sunlight when possible to maintain a formula's effectiveness.
Mineral-based and chemical-based formulas are 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 as they are not absorbed into the skin. Once applied, they can be greasy or chalky, which leaves a bit to be desired, but they work great and are safe for children's 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 the active ingredient is applied. When significant separation occurs, such that 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 on their label. This claim means 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 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 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 their chemical composition doesn't change with exposure to UV radiation. The 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 like avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and others that protect by being absorbed into the skin. These products 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, redness, rash, or dryness. Even adults with sensitive skin can develop allergic-type reactions and rashes to active chemical 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. Also, these chemicals can be absorbed into the skin and are known endocrine disrupters that can cause potential health problems.
Q & A: Sunscreen 101
Though we've already shared our favorite brands, the following content answers common questions regarding general use, label reading, and selection. So, the next time you're standing in front of an aisle with a large selection, 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 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping babies less than six 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 as much as possible and use mineral-based protection on exposed areas, even if your baby is wearing a hat. After six months of age, you should routinely use a mineral-based product whenever your little one 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 liberal layer. We don't recommend stick-based protection as it can be challenging to get full coverage with missed spots and/or a thick enough layer, which can result in unnecessary burning. However, sticks may have their place for spot application for hard to reach areas like the back of your neck; 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 sunscreen 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 they don't tend to be rubbed onto the skin once applied, which can make them less useful as it often results in inadequate coverage and/or retention of product. Also, many are clear, so it is challenging to ascertain coverage. Possible outcome? Sunburn city.
In our research, we discovered incidents of the use of aerosolized sunscreen resulting in fire burns from the skin starting on fire after exposure to a fire source. Unfortunately, the bottles are not adequately labeled to inform parents of this potential outcome. The burns occur after the application of the aerosolized lotion and proximity to a fire source. Some known incidents occurred near a heated BBQ, citronella candle, and cigarette lighter. While the reports are limited and it appears rare, it is our opinion, that this is yet another reason to avoid the use of aerosolized sunscreen, 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 will sneak through and paying attention can make a significant difference on whether or not your little one gets burned playing in the sun. No one wants to reapply sunscreen on a kiddo every 40-minutes! The products we chose for this round-up have an 80-minute water resistance (except for Blue Lizard, which is for dry activities). Nonetheless, after sweating OR swimming for the duration of the resistance window, reapplication is necessary. Reapplication is 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 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 strange, it is time to toss and replace it. We understand that throwing out a half-used bottle is painful, but this is not a good time to cut corners. You can typically find the expiration date on the corrugated edge of a tube or 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 gain a limited benefit.
- What About UVA Protection? — Because SPF only correlates to UVB blockage, for adequate UVA protection, you should use a broad-spectrum formula, meaning one that offers sufficient coverage from UVA and UVB Rays. This concern is where label reading becomes essential. 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 (those recommended in this review), having either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide or a combination gets the job done for full-spectrum protection.
- What's the Scoop on Combination Sunscreen/Insect Repellant? — Our advice? Just Say No. Why? They aren't as effective and typically use chemical-based active ingredients. Also, sunscreen requires more frequent applications than insect repellants, so there is a big disconnect that feels unnecessary and exposes little ones to even higher concentrations of chemicals.
- Does the Type of Active Ingredients Matter? — In our opinion, when it comes to using sunscreen on babies and kids, the ingredients matter. What makes sunscreen work are the active ingredients, either mineral, chemical, or a combination. Paying attention to fine print details is essential in your overall selection, particularly for sensitive skin.
When it comes to babies and kiddos, our opinion is that a mineral-based sunscreen in a lotion formulation is the best way to go. Though this type of sunscreen can typically take some elbow-grease to apply and can leave a white residue, there is a peace of mind that it remains ON the skin and is not absorbed INTO the skin. If mineral-based products are cost-prohibitive for your family, the use of a chemical-based formulation, like Coppertone or Banana Boat, is significantly better than skipping the screen altogether. We really can not stress this enough. Also, since there are typically several active and inactive ingredients in any product, we recommend conducting a spot test with a new product before use to determine skin sensitivity. As always, remember to use triple defense to maximize sun protection. This defense includes covering up with a hat, sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts, and pants, and protective lip balm.
— Juliet Spurrier, MD