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Children typically spend more time outdoors in the warmer months, and when they’re outside, sunscreen should be top of mind — whether they’re spending a day at the pool, heading to the beach or gearing up for a family barbecue.
“Sunscreen is crucial for all children over six months of age, regardless of skin tone,” said Dr. Rebecca Carter, a pediatrician at the University of Maryland Medical Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “It helps prevent damage from the sun that goes beyond the painful effects of sunburn, including increased risk for skin cancers down the line.”
Finding the safest and most effective sunscreen to protect your child’s sensitive skin from the sun’s rays can sometimes be difficult due to the many options out there, with varying SPF ratings, application types and formulas. To help you determine the best kids sunscreen, we spoke to dermatologists about what to look for and how to properly apply it. We also rounded up some expert-recommended sunscreens for kids to shop.
What is the safest sunscreen to use on kids?
Dermatologists told us sunscreens should have a minimum SPF 30 to provide an adequate amount of protection, regardless of age. “[But] I think SPF 50 or higher is better, as most people put on a much thinner layer of sunscreen than the sunscreen manufacturers recommend and use for their testing to quantify the SPF level,” said Dr. Jennifer Mancuso, a pediatric dermatologist at University of Michigan Health.
Just as importantly, you should look for a kids sunscreen that’s broad spectrum, meaning it’s “protecting against UVA, which causes tanning and skin aging, as well as UVB, which causes sunburns and skin cancers,” Mancuso added.
Mineral sunscreen versus chemical sunscreen
The dermatologists we spoke to advised sticking to mineral (also known as physical) sunscreens rather than chemical ones, the latter of which Carter explained are absorbed into the skin and can be more irritating. “For infants and young children, it’s typically recommended to use mineral sunscreens made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — these are more stable and less irritating or allergenic for sensitive skin,” Mancuso explained.
Mineral-based sunscreens — which, unlike mineral sunscreens, still contain some chemical components — are suitable for older kids, according to Carter. However, babies and young children between six months old and 2 years old should use mineral-only sunscreen to avoid any potential irritation on their sensitive skin, said Dr. Karan Lal, a board-certified dermatologist and committee chair of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology. (You should avoid using sunscreen on infants under six months old and stick to sun-protective clothing instead, according to the FDA.)
Because mineral sunscreens tend to leave more of an unsightly white sheen on the skin, some people may prefer to use a chemical sunscreen. Experts told us that older children, teenagers and adults should be fine to use chemical sunscreens as a last resort — however, the FDA said that active ingredients in chemical sunscreens, like oxybenzone and ocinoxate, need to be studied more before they can be deemed safe and effective by the organization.
The best sunscreen for kids in 2022
Our experts recommended looking for mineral sunscreens (which contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide instead of a chemical base) that are non-comedogenic and with broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher. All of the following sunscreens for kids are recommended by our experts and are in line with this guidance.
Blue Lizard’s mineral sunscreens are a favorite among our experts. “I love the ‘smart cap technology’ that helps to teach kids about UV rays — the cap or bottle turns pink in harmful UV light,” said Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. This stick version — also available as a mineral-based lotion — is water- and sweat-resistance for up to 80 minutes and offers SPF 50 protection, according to Blue Lizard. It’s also free of both parabens and fragrances, making it a safer bet for kids with sensitive skin, the brand says. Blue Lizard also offers sunscreens for babies in stick and lotion form.
Dr. Amy Witt, a board-certified dermatologist at Derrow Dermatology, said CeraVe is one of her go-to OTC brands for mineral sunscreen since its products are oil-free, fragrance-free and suitable for sensitive skin on both kids and adults. This mineral sunscreen also contains hyaluronic acid, which experts previously told us can help retain the skin’s natural moisture. Since it can leave a white cast, the brand recommends thoroughly massaging a thin layer of the cream on one small area of the body at a time about 15 minutes before sun exposure.
Carter recommended this mineral-based Babyganics Sunscreen Lotion as a great option with SPF 50 protection with a mineral base containing both zinc oxide and titanium oxide. The sunscreen is water- and sweat-resistant for up to 80 minutes and is meant to be non-allergenic and tear-free, the brand says.
Neutrogena’s Sheer Zinc Sunscreen Stick has a hypoallergenic formula and is free of fragrances and dyes, which the brand says helps to prevent irritation on your child’s sensitive skin. “It's a little bit hard to put this all over the body because it's a stick, but I think it's great for noses and faces, and I especially love it for the scalp,” said Dr. Emmy Graber, a board-certified dermatologist and president of The Dermatology Institute of Boston. “I put it on [my kids’] part line so they don’t get sunburned — everybody forgets about that part,” she added. According to the brand, the sunscreen is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.
This physical sunscreen is a favorite of King’s because she said 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. “The brush is soft and brightly colored so it's fun to apply,” she added. The BOB Kids powder sunscreen provides up to 80 minutes of SPF 30 protection, according to the brand.
Another favorite of both Witt’s and Graber’s, the Banana Boat Kids Mineral Sunscreen Lotion with SPF 50 protection sports the National Eczema Association’s Seal of Acceptance, which means it’s suitable for people with eczema and sensitive skin. The formula is non-greasy, fragrance- and tear-free and water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, according to the brand.
Witt cited Aveeno as another quality brand when looking for a kids sunscreen — its mild, hypoallergenic formula with skin-soothing oat won’t cause irritation or stinging, according to the brand. Aveeno says this sunscreen lotion is sweat- and water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and features a non-greasy, paraben- and fragrance-free formula.
Dr. Kenneth Mark, a dermatologist and Mohs skin cancer surgeon in New York City, said he likes this mineral sunscreen from Neutrogena for babies six months and older. “It’s free of fragrance, parabens, phthalates, dyes and irritating chemicals for their sensitive skin,” he said. Neutrogena says this sunscreen was designed to be lightweight on the face and water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. The liquid formula is also hypoallergenic and oil-free, meaning it shouldn't cause pimples for older kids and teens.
What is the best type of sunscreen for kids?
Sunscreens come in a variety of product types, ranging from sprays and gels to lotions and creams. Our experts agreed that creams and lotions are most effective since they provide the most amount of coverage. Witt said she also loves applying stick sunscreens on her kids’ faces — “they have fun doing it themselves and they’re more water-repellent, so they’re less likely to get in their eyes if they're sweating,” she said.
Though spray sunscreens can be a popular choice for older kids and teens, Graber noted that she’s not a fan of them due to poor coverage (on top of possibly being inhaled in the application process). “Even though they seem really fast and easy to apply, you rarely get good coverage over the whole body because it just doesn't go on evenly — any slight bit of wind will blow it away,” she said. If you do use a spray sunscreen, “make sure to spray it into your hand — away from your child's face and eyes — to apply instead of spraying directly onto your child's skin,” Carter advised.
How to best apply sunscreen to your kids
Kids may need to rely on adults to apply and reapply sunscreen, especially younger ones. Lal recommended following the “9 teaspoon rule”: 1 teaspoon for the face and neck, 1 for the torso, 1 for the back, 1 for each arm and 2 teaspoons for each leg. And just like adults, sunscreen on kids should be reapplied every two hours, he added.
All sunscreens tend to be washed off when swimming or sweating, so it’s important to reapply your child’s sunscreen every time they get wet. Mancuso said this still applies to sunscreen products labeled as "water-resistant" (which means your child’s protected for 40 minutes of activity in water or while sweating) or "very water-resistant" (meaning they’re protected for 80 minutes). “It may help to set an alarm on your phone to remind you to reapply it,” she suggested.
There are a few ways to gauge whether your child is using enough sunscreen. “It should be hard to blend in — especially with the creams or lotions — so you should have a lot of white streaks on your skin or else you didn't use enough,” Witt said. You also should go through bottles of sunscreen within a couple of weeks if you're using it every day on multiple family members.
Can kids use the same sunscreen as adults?
Yes, kids can use the same sunscreen as teens and adults as long as they contain mineral-based formulas with broad spectrum and SPF 30 or higher, according to our experts. Some older kids, teens and adults may prefer a higher SPF chemical sunscreen that doesn’t leave a white residue on the skin, but Lal advised only using adult sunscreens labeled as pure mineral sunscreen on young children.
Other sun safety tips for children
While applying (and reapplying) sunscreen throughout the day does offer an important layer of protection for kids, there are other steps you can (and should) take to keep your kids safe from the sun’s harmful rays. Our experts highlighted a few additional tips ranging from the time of day they’re exposed to the sun to additional sun-safe clothing.
- Avoiding taking your child out during peak UV hours. “Seek shade whenever possible and avoid prolonged sun between 10 AM and 2 PM when the sun is strongest,” said Lal.
- Have them wear protective clothing and accessories. This includes UPF clothing — which usually offers long-sleeves and sun protective rash guards — broad-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses when they’re outside, said King.
- Ensure there’s always a covered area. “I recommend purchasing a kid tent to use at the beach to help their kids stay protected during downtime,” said Lal.