The Scoop on Sunscreen

This content has been clinically reviewed by Tracy Nailor, M.D.

Parents, did you know? Even one blistering sunburn can nearly double a child’s chances of getting melanoma—the deadliest of skin cancers—as an adult. Thankfully, prevention is pretty simple. You can greatly lower your child’s risk of getting dangerous skin cancers simply by getting serious about sun safety.

New moms and dads, your baby is too young to wear sunscreen just yet, so start by keeping your infant in the shade when you go outside. Dress him in tightly-woven long-sleeved shirts and pants, and don’t forget a hat with a brim. 

Once your baby reaches 6 months and older, it’s time to make sunscreen a habit. But with so many on the market to choose from, it can be tough to decide which one is best for your kids. Which SPF? How much and how often needs to be applied? Does waterproof really work?

If you’re confused about what sunscreen you child needs, and the best way to use it, this guide can help.

Choosing a Sunscreen for Your Child

Children need to wear sunscreen, but they don’t necessarily have to wear a kid’s sunscreen. Turns out, sunscreens marketed as “kid” formulas are not safer or regulated any differently than other sunscreens. When shopping for sunscreen, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends looking for these words on the front label:

  • Broad spectrum. This means the sunscreen protects the skin from the sun’s ultraviolet UVA and UVB rays, both of which can cause cancer.
  • SPF 30 (or higher). SPF stands for “sun protection factor.” SPF 30 means the sunscreen blocks 97 percent of the sun’s rays. Higher SPFs block slightly more, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent.
  • Water resistant or very water resistant. This means the sunscreen will provide protection when kids are in and out of the water for the number of minutes indicated on the bottle. This this does not mean the product is waterproof—no sunscreen is waterproof (even if it says so on the label).

Mineral or chemical?

Sunscreen formulas tend to fall into two categories: mineral or chemical.

Mineral sunscreens are those that contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide as the active ingredient. These sunscreens sit on top of the skin and deflect the sun’s rays. Mineral sunscreens may appear like a white film on your child’s skin even after you rub them in.

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s rays and usually do not leave any visible film after applying. Both formulas work equally well, however, mineral sunscreen may be less irritating to a child’s sensitive skin—especially on areas like the nose, cheeks, tops of the ears and shoulders.

Beware of “natural’’ sunscreens, which Consumer Reports found consistently performed less effectively than chemical and mineral formulas.

Lotion or spray?

While it may be more convenient when dealing with squirmy little ones, it’s best to avoid spray sunscreens. It’s hard to judge just how much is actually getting onto the skin, and it’s easy to miss a spot. Plus, sprays are easier to breathe in and can irritate little lungs.

If you do choose a spray, don’t spray it around the face or mouth. Instead, spray it into your hands, and then apply it to facial areas. Sprays are also flammable, so watch out around open flames, like a grill.

A few more tips:

  • Don’t use sunscreens with PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), a commonly used ingredient because of its ability to help absorb the sun’s UV rays. PABA can cause allergic reactions and other health problems.
  • Also, avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone (another common sunscreen ingredient that aids UV coverage) because of concerns about its effect on hormonal properties.
  • If your teen wants to use a self-tanning lotion, make sure to get one that also has UV protection. Many have little or none at all. (Tanning, in general, is discouraged by health professionals. It has been shown to increase skin cancer risk and is not recommended).

Applying Sunscreen

If your baby is younger than 6 months, don’t use sunscreen on his sensitive skin. Instead, keep your baby in the shade as much as possible and dress him in long sleeves, pants and a sunhat.

For older kids, sunscreen must be applied correctly to do its job. This means you should:

  • Apply sunscreen 15 to 20 minutes before they go outside. 
  • Apply a generous amount. Dermatologists recommend using 1 ounce—enough to fill a shot glass—to cover exposed parts of the body.
  • Don’t forget to apply sunscreen on the ears, hands, feet, shoulders and behind the neck.
  • Protect lips, too, with an SPF 30 lip balm.
  • Reapply sunscreen about every two hours and after swimming.

Don’t forget sunscreen on cloudy days (plus a couple other tips):

Some of the worst sunburns occur when children spend a cloudy day outside without sunscreen. Eighty percent of the sun’s UV rays can get through the clouds, leaving kids’ unprotected skin vulnerable to burns.

Remember to reapply sunscreen throughout the day, especially if your child is swimming. Water-resistant sunscreens can still come off if your child spends an extended period of time in the water.

Remember, too, that sunscreen can’t do the entire job. The sun's UV rays are strongest in the middle of the day, so make sure your child takes a break and spends some time indoors to prevent burns. While outside, make sure your child covers up, wears a sunhat and spends some time in the shade.

Finally, don’t forget to tell your child’s grandparents, babysitters and other caretakers about the importance of sun protection when they are enjoying a day outdoors with your kids. 

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.