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As you and your family enjoy the last stretch of summer, sunscreen should remain top of mind. Whether you’re spending a day at the beach, having a picnic in the park or gearing up for a end-of-summer barbecue, finding which sunscreens are best for your kids can be difficult.
Of course, you want one that’s going to effectively protect them from sunburns (since research finds that five or more bad sunburns before age 20 can increase someone’s risk of melanoma by a whopping 80 percent). But you also want to make sure that what you’re putting on your child’s extra-delicate skin is completely safe.
SKIP AHEAD Best sunscreen for kids
How to find the best sunscreen for kids
Regardless of age, always choose a sunscreen that’s broad-spectrum, meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF 30 at minimum, said Viseslav Tonkovic-Capin, MD, a Kansas City dermatologist and editor of his site DermBoard. UVA rays prematurely age skin, while UVB rays cause sunburns; SPF refers to how much UVB light sunscreen can filter out.
Planning a fun day in the pool or a weekend trip to the beach? “If your child will be partaking in water activities, make sure to look for a formula that is water-resistant,” said Gretchen Frieling, MD, a dermatopathologist in Boston. Sunscreen can be labeled water-resistant for up to 40 or 80 minutes, so you’ll still have to reapply regularly.
As for the type of sunscreen you use on your child, dermatologists advise sticking to mineral (also known as physical) formulas, rather than chemical ones, for a variety of reasons. “I prefer zinc oxide-based products, as unlike chemicals, they block out the full UV spectrum," said Kenneth Mark, MD, a dermatologist and Mohs skin cancer surgeon in New York City. Plus, mineral sunscreens don’t absorb in the skin the way chemical ones do, are generally less irritating and are also better for the environment, noted Tonkovic-Capin.
While spray sunscreens are a popular choice among older kids and teens, Tonkovic-Capin prefers lotions and creams. “Sunscreens are designed to go onto your skin and not into your lungs or the lungs of other people around you when you try to spray it onto your skin,” he said. And as Sheel Desai Solomon, MD, a dermatologist in Raleigh/Durham, pointed out, “spray makes it difficult to regulate the amount you are putting on, meaning you can put on less than you need.”
How to apply sunscreen to your kids
“Kids need sunscreen and rely on adults to apply it when they are too young to apply on themselves,” said Tess Mauricio, MD, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills. Apply approximately half a teaspoon of sunscreen to your child’s face and one ounce to their entire body, and remember to reapply every two hours (or any time they get wet), added Susan Bard, MD, a dermatologist in New York City.
Raising a tween or teen? Teaching them about the importance of applying, and reapplying, sunscreen is key, said Solomon. That said, “some teens and young adults are concerned and embarrassed by the shiny residue some sunscreen products leave behind so they apply an insufficient amount of protection,” Solomon said. “If your child has these concerns, talk to them and instill in them the importance of protecting our skin.” Tonkovic-Capin suggested moving on to another brand until you find one you and your kids absolutely like to use.
Other sun safety tips for children
“The biggest misconception is that it is good enough just to use a sunscreen for adequate protection from the sun,” said Tonkovic-Capin. Other steps you should take to keep your kids sun-safe are avoiding taking them out during peak UV hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and putting them in protective clothing, a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses when they are outside, said Hadley King, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. You should also always seek shade when the family is outside.
The best sunscreen for kids
To help you and your family practice a sun protection routine, we’ve gathered the best sunscreens for kids. Here are dermatologists top picks.
“This mineral blocker sunscreen contains only zinc oxide for broad-spectrum protection that can be used by anyone, even kids and those with sensitive skin,” said Joshua Zeichner, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. Neutrogena’s SheerZinc has a hypoallergenic formula and is free of fragrance and dyes, which helps to prevent irritation on your child’s sensitive skin. It’s also water-resistant up to 80 minutes.
For the child who just doesn’t want to wear sunscreen, this glitter-packed sunscreen is a game-changer. “This is a completely mineral based sunscreen and a great way to get kids excited about putting on their sunscreen,” said Bard. As a bonus, the formula is biodegradable.
This physical sunscreen is a favorite of King’s because you can throw it in your bag for easy re-application. “The powder format is so easy to apply so kids won't complain about goopy sunscreen, there's no smell and it's translucent,” she said. “And the brush is soft and brightly colored so it's fun to apply.”
Solomon cited Aveeno as one of her go-to brands when looking for a good kids’ sunscreen. This mineral sunscreen has a mild, hypoallergenic formula that won’t cause irritation or stinging, and it’s water resistant for 80 minutes.
Another brand Solomon likes is Babyganics. For the littlest of little ones, this mineral formula not only protects a baby’s delicate skin with SPF 50, but it also nourishes with a seed oil blend. It is meant to be non-allergenic and tear-free, so parents don’t have to worry about irritating their child’s sensitive skin when trying to protect them from the sun. Babyganics said this formula is also free of pesky ingredients such as PABA, phthalates, parabens, fragrances and nano-particles.
Mark likes this sunscreen for kids because it’s made with 21 percent zinc oxide and safe for babies six months and up. “It’s also free of fragrance, parabens, phthalates, dyes and irritating chemicals,” he said. This sunscreen was designed to be lightweight and specifically for the face, plus it is also water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. The liquid formula is hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic and oil-free, meaning it shouldn't cause pimples, and plays nicely under makeup — so feel free to borrow your child's sunscreen if you're wearing makeup.
Teens dealing with acne breakouts may not be too keen on applying sunscreen. Enter Proactiv's formula (which is a chemical, rather than a physical blocker), a favorite of Mauricio. “For older kids and teenagers who are starting to have issues with oily skin, clogged pores, whiteheads, blackheads and acne, this sunscreen can help add moisture, reduce shine and also protect the skin from UV damage,” she said.
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