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Sunscreen for Kids: Everything You Need to Know

We asked an expert to break down exactly what sunscreen we should be using on our kids, and how to apply it while minimizing meltdowns and maximizing sun safety all summer long.

Sunscreen for Kids: Everything You Need to Know

Photo: iStockphoto

With summer (finally) in full swing, it likely means you recently found yourself at a crossroads sunscreen aisle: Do you buy mineral or organic? Spray, lotion or stick and then SPF 30, 50 or 60? Do kids really need kid-specific sunscreen? And which is the best sunscreen for kids to bring to those all-inclusive family resorts you've been eyeing for weeks?

To break down the complexities of SPF, we asked Aleyna Zarras, regional trainer and skin expert for La Roche-Posay, all our burning sun care questions.

So, what is the SPF in sunscreen for kids?

A major myth out there is that SPF is a measurement of time, says Zarras. “The thought is the higher the SPF number, the more minutes you can spend carefree in the sun without reapplication,” she explains.

Rather, SPF or 'Sunburn Protection Factor' evaluates the UVB protection that the sunscreen provides. "SPF is actually calculated [scientifically] by the number of UVB rays it takes for the skin to turn red," Zarras explains.

UVA and UVB rays come from the sun but UVB are primarily what cause our skin to turn red and give us a sunburn when not protected properly." No matter what SPF is used, reapplication should be a minimum of two hours; sooner if swimming, sweating or toweling off.

What’s the difference between UVA and UVB rays—and how can we protect against both?

“UVA and UVB rays both cause damage to our DNA, which can cause skin cancer, but UVA goes further [into],” says Zarras.

UVB rays account for about five percent of rays coming from the sun. They directly affect the epidermis of our skin (the outermost layer) and primarily cause sunburns, although they can also cause skin cancer. "W like to say ‘B’ for burning,” says Zarras. SPF protects your skin against these rays.

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UVA rays account for the other 95 percent of rays. These impact the deep dermal layer in our skin structure, Zarras explains. UVA rays cause things like accelerated aging. and immunosuppression. This means they weaken our immune system and allow dormant viruses like cold sores to become active. These rays can also trigger allergic responses in our skin that might result in hives or a red rash.

“Sometimes, people will think that the sunscreen they used is causing the allergic reaction; meanwhile, they were just using a product that didn’t have enough UVA protection in it,” Zarras says.

“If you see a sunscreen product that says 'broad-spectrum' that means it protects you from UVB, UVA short, and UVA long rays, but the UVA protection overall could either be low, moderate or high” she says.

What level of SPF should I buy for my kids?

Dermatologists in both the United States and Canada recommend using between SPF 30 and 60 for optimal protection for both kids and adults. It's important to pick a kids' sunscreen SPF 30 and higher, and something easy to apply.

The easier it is to apply, the more likely you are to use it.

How do I choose between a mineral sunscreen and an organic sunscreen?

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“Mineral filters work like a disco ball,” Zarras says. “They essentially disperse or deflect the UV rays in different directions, offering high UVB protection and moderate UVA protection. The majority of the rays will be scattered away from the skin. However, a small amount of UVA rays could potentially be scattered into the skin.”

This is why when using mineral sunscreen, it’s important to apply the recommended quantity to minimize penetration of those sneaky UVA rays. Look for an enriched formula, which will protect against free radicals caused by UVA rays.

The other sunscreen for kids and adults option is an organic (also known as chemical) sunscreen.

“These sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the UV rays, transforming their energy and then releasing it in a non-harmful way.” says Zarras.

When choosing the right sun protection for you and your family, your best bet is to find a product that’s a right fit for you in regards to its texture, while ensuring it’s broad spectrum and shows the Health Canada UVA logo.

The best sunscreen for kids 2024

Best overall

La Roche Posay Anthelios SPF 50 Kids

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Get full spectrum UVA UVB protection with this top-rated sunscreen for kids that offers a milky white texture and little to no odor at all. It's easy to apply evenly, won't apply gloppy or sticky and is approved by the Skin Cancer Foundation.

We love the strong SPF 50 protection, gentle formula that's safe enough for even the most sensitive skin. The formula works on both face and body. It also boasts a minimum of 40 minutes of protection even in direct sunlight.

Best stick

Baby Bum SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen Stick for Babies and Kids

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This little stick is TSA-approved for carryons, fits in purses, pockets and camp bags without worry. It's a cinch to use, applies smooth (not chalky) and makes sun safety more fun than ever before.

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We love that it's also budget-friendly, great for the whole family and safe enough for babies ages six months and older to use. This mineral-based zinc oxide block keeps harmful UVA and UVB rays from damaging delicate skin.

Best for mom and baby to share

Goddess Garden SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen Lotion

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The American Academy of Dermatology suggests going for SPF 30 or higher, and this mineral-based sunscreen from Goddess Garden goes above and beyond with SPF 50 designed for the most sensitive skin. It's dermatologist-tested, water resistant for up to 80 minutes and formulated to be reef safe.

While it's technically for babies, we loved the formula so much that we count it as one of our favorites for pregnancy, nursing and just about every other stage of parenting. The rich, velvety zinc oxide formula promises easy distribution.

Best reef-safe

Badger SPF 40 Reef Safe Mineral Sunscreen for Kids

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The fragrance-free, cruelty-free and hypoallergenic line of Badger sunscreens for kids wowed us. Easy application that's easy for kids of all ages and stages to see and rub in helped earn it a top spot on our list.

We love the reef-safe formula, hydrating ingredients that stand up to drying sun and salt water and water resistance up to 80 minutes.

Best budget

Aveeno SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen for Kids

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This is the brand most recommended by the board certified dermatologists we spoke to thanks to consistent reliability, a mineral formula and a downright great piece. At three ounces, it's small enough to pack in a carry-on bag if you're heading to the airport, but large enough to cover an entire kid for a long day at the pool.

We love the thick, non-greasy formula that's easy to spread. It won't irritate or dry skin out, and offers a water-resistant formula most kids love. Pack this one in a camp bag with their favorite kids water bottles and you'll be mom of the year.

Best mineral lotion

Stream2Sea SPF 45 Sheer Mineral Lotion for Kids and Babies

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Tell them to hop back in the pool or build a few more sand castles without worry, because this rich Stream2Sea mineral sunscreen won't wash off in the water. Strong SPF 45 is enough to keep most skin types protected with the brand's special WetBoost technology.

Eco-safe zinc and antioxidants protect the skin from the full spectrum of harmful UV rays. We tried this kids' sunscreen formula on our own kids on Caribbean beaches and in our backyards—it worked and never left them feeling chalky.

Best spray

Banana Boat Kids 360 Coverage Sunscreen Mist SPF 50+

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Spray delivery is preferred by many parents, especially for those hard-to-reach areas between the straps of sandals for kids and bathing suits. We love the zinc oxide-based formula of this top-rated sunscreen for kids, the easy self-dispensing kids can handle by themselves and the light, velvety texture that's ideal for sensitive skin.

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We love the non-aerosol delivery, colorful packaging that keeps kids reaching for it and reusable, twist-off sprayer with a refillable sunscreen bottle that can be used up to 14 times. Refills are sold separately and are easy to carry. It's a great, eco-friendly alternative to the popular Blue Lizard spray.

Expect full-body coverage in an easy-to-use mist delivery that applies evenly and thoroughly without worry.

Best for eyes

Sun Patch UPF 50 Silicone Sunscreen Patches

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Fragrance-free and chemical-free is the name of this sun protection game. These brilliant under-eye patches promise no more sunscreen running into delicate eyes—crying is a thing of the past. Sun-blocking silicone is the main mechanism, and these are reusable.

FAQs

When should you reapply sunscreen?

To start, you want to apply sunscreen about 15-30 minutes before heading out into the sun. No matter what SPF you’re using, you have to reapply every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweating, read the label to learn how long your sunscreen remains water-resistant.

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Reapply as soon as the water resistance times out, or immediately after towel drying. Limit exposure to the sun’s rays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun is at its peak. 

Are spray sunscreens safe to use?

Sprays are safe for everybody, as long as they’re used correctly.

“People assume that sprays are easier [than], because you can just spray and go. That’s false,” cautions Zarras. “You must spread a spray evenly over the skin, to ensure all areas are protected. You want to ensure that you shake it well, so that all the filters are evenly dispersed. And you want to spray it generously, but close to the skin, about 10-15 centimeters away.”

Another important rule: Never spray directly on anyone’s face. Spray into your hand and then apply to the face, behind the ears, and even the hairline. Sprays are particularly useful for re-application, as a follow-up to an initial layer of lotion when you’re out and about—although they shouldn’t be used in windy conditions.

Most sunscreens say not to apply them on children under the age of six months. Is sunscreen dangerous for babies?

“A child up to six months of age should not be in direct sunlight, and so they shouldn’t need [sunscreen],” explains Zarras. This is why most sunscreens specifically say to not apply on children under the age of six months: It’s not because it is dangerous for them.

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“When a baby is born, their skin is much thinner and delicate, and their melanocytes—which produce melanin (skin pigmentation)—are still developing,” she says. 

Do I need to buy kids’ sunscreen for my kid?

According to Zarras, it depends on the formulation. “I’ll use the La Roche-Posay dermo-kids product as an example,” she says. “All our sun protections are allergy-tested under dermatological control, but our dermo-kids sunscreen was also tested under paediatric control. We developed it with an anti-rubbing effect for a child’s delicate skin.”

“We know that children can be finicky,” Zarras says of her brand's sunscreens for kids. “This is great for parents because it glides easily leaving a leaving a translucent white film to allow even coverage before melting into the skin for a supple and dry finish. It’s also water, sweat and sand resistant.”

Bottom line: Kids' sunscreens are optimized for kid levels of activity, and for their delicate skin, but adult can use it, too!

How can parents avoid getting sunscreen in kids’ eyes?

Never spray sunscreen directly in the face; spray in the hands first, and then carefully apply. Avoid the eye area directly when applying, even creams and lotions. If the issue is that the sunscreen is dripping into their eyes when your kid is playing or swimming, try a stick format with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the hero ingredients.

This article contains affiliate links, so we may earn a small commission when you make a purchase through links on our site at no additional cost to you.

This article was originally published on Jun 26, 2019

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Bryce Gruber is the Executive Editor at Today's Parent and a Jewish mom to five growing kids. She's based in New York's Hudson Valley, loves writing shopping and trend content and catching up on pop culture. When she's not raising her children, she can be found hiking local mountains, traveling to sunny beaches and trying to get a handle on the endless laundry life provides.

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