Screening the Sunscreens: What's Safe for Baby

Our guide to safe sun protection for your little one.


Any day now you'll be reaching for summer's first tube of sunscreen. You're not alone if you're wondering just what's in it and, most importantly, if it's safe for you and your kids to spend the season slathering it all over. Sunscreens shield us from the sun's damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

To provide this defense, they contain chemical and mineral ingredients that scatter, reflect or absorb UV radiation, including oxybenzone, octyl methoxycinnamate, avobenzone, zinc, and titanium.

Chemical Ingredients:

Oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate are allergens and possible hormone disruptors. Because oxybenzone can penetrate skin in significant amounts, it's best to avoid using products containing it, especially on children. If you want to go the chemical route, Avobenzone and Mexoryl (a camphor derivative also called ecamsule) are better options.

Mineral Ingredients:

In the natural realm, zinc and titanium, two non-toxic minerals, provide even safer and more effective sunscreening. Don't worry, you won't look white or pasty. Today's "vanishing" products—as opposed to older formulations—use ultra tiny nano-sized particles that go on clear.

While nanotechnology remains a general concern, studies have found that nano-based sunscreens generally don't penetrate skin. Due to safety risks from possible inhalation, however, powder and spray sunscreen varieties should be avoided. If you'd prefer to avoid nanoparticles, some mineral sunscreen manufacturers make "non-nano" products that conform to international nanotechnology standards (the FDA doesn't have any).

SPF Guidelines:

When it comes to what SPF (sun protection factor) to use, keep in mind that more isn't always more. The maximum UVA protection that American sunscreens currently offer is just SPF 15 no matter what the label says. SPF actually refers to a product's UVB blocking ability. An SPF 20 sunscreen, for example, lets you sunbathe roughly 20 times longer before burning than you could without it.

Sunscreen for Newborns:

Experts caution that no sunscreen is safe for infants under the age of 6 months. Babies should simply be kept out of direct sun. This is good common sense advice should to be heeded by the rest of us, too. While sunscreens offer temporary protection, the best and safest defense against skin cancer, premature aging and other effects is limiting sun exposure.

Safer Sun Strategies:

To keep your skin safe and out of the sun's harmful rays, try safer sun strategies like these:

  • Avoid direct sun between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm when sunlight is strongest.
  • Remember that sun exposure is cumulative. Taking a shade break does not reset your sun clock.
  • Limit your exposure to reflective surfaces—sand, tile, water, snow, etc.—that bounce UV rays into shaded areas.
  • Know that UVA radiation stays relatively constant regardless of the time of day or cloud cover.
  • Use umbrellas—a big one at the beach and a smaller parasol for walks.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat, and long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or caftans made from light fabrics that you can't see through. Consider UV-protective fabrics, which are specially woven to block sun but remain cool.
  • Avoid products containing retinyl palmitate; studies have suggested a possible link between it and skin cancer.
  • Apply a mineral sunscreen generously a half an hour before going outdoors and reapply it every two hours and/or after being in water.

For more than 20 years Healthy Child Healthy World, a non-profit whose mission is to empower families to make better, safer choices, has been protecting children from the harmful effects of toxic chemicals. We are seeing increased evidence of the impact of these chemicals found in everyday products on children's health. Through evidence-based information and up to date resources and programs, we help families, promote solutions, and influence policy.