Choosing an appropriate sunscreen for your baby may at first seem like something that doesn’t require much thought. You have to protect their skin from the sun. Sunscreen does that, so why not just grab some SPF 50, apply liberally, and be done with it?
If only it were that easy. Sunscreen selection is one of the many conundrums you face as a parent (as though you needed another). You protect your children from one thing only to find out it may have actually been good for them. In the case of sunscreen, it’s the protection itself that may be the cause of additional problems. So, how do you choose baby sunscreen?
If your baby is going to be outside – and almost every parent and parenting expert will suggest they should spend time outdoors after the age of 6 months – you’ll need to protect their skin from the harmful rays of the sun. But what’s the point of protecting their skin from the sun if in the process you’re applying harmful chemicals to their delicate skin? Some sunscreens contain ingredients that may be just as harmful to your baby as prolonged exposure to the sun. What’s more, they may also be very bad for the environment. What’s a mindful mom or dad to do?
The Sunscreen Factors to Consider for Safety
Luckily, there is no dearth of information on the topic online. While some may be misleading – either intentionally or otherwise – there are independent research reports that can guide your decisions and provide quite a bit of information. In fact, there’s an entire organization, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), that provides in-depth research and reporting on consumer products. Their 2019 post, best-scoring sunscreens for kids, provides a nice overview for parents in terms of what to look for and what specific brands are the best. Drilling down further, you can see how each sunscreen fared, what ingredients they contain, and much more.
The EWG Baby Sunscreen Ratings
According to their standard product research and review process, EWG develops criteria for rating any given product. For sunscreens for babies and kids, these are:
- UVA Protection
- Balance of UVA Protection to SPF
- General Health Concerns Associated with Ingredients
- Price Range
- Information Available and Noted Concerns about EACH Ingredient
How to Choose Baby Sunscreen
The information regarding ingredients are rated according to EWG’s own “Skin Deep” cosmetics database. According to their website, EWG “assesses the ingredients listed on the labels of personal care products based on data in toxicity and regulatory databases, government and health agency assessments and the open scientific literature.”
EWG’s ratings range from 1 (best) to 10 (worst) and are color-coded so you can see, at a glance, whether a given product poses a low, moderate, or high risk. The data score key indicates how much information is available for a given ingredient (yes, EWG actually rates each and every ingredient…even water).
Sunscreens, Use Tips, and Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid
There are certain general rules of thumb that you can always apply to the sunscreen you select for your kids and how you use it. These simple tips will get you going in the right direction, and for a more in-depth analysis you can use the EWG ratings system to make your selection:
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours
- Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before exposure to the sun
- Remember to reapply sunscreen – regardless of the time since the last application – after sweating, swimming, or towel-drying
- Don’t use spray-on sunscreens. These do not provide a thick enough cover to truly protect the skin, and inhaling them can be harmful
- Use sunscreens with SPF (sun protection factor) ratings between SPF 15 and SPF 50. Anything less than 15 provide inadequate protection, and those over 50 provide only marginally better protection while giving the impression of much more robust coverage
- Avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate, which is a form of vitamin A that has been linked by research to sun sensitivity
- Also avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor
Why Not SPF Above 50?
If 50 is good, 100 must be better, right? Well, when it comes to sunscreen SPF ratings, not so much. In fact, in Australia the highest SPF allowed to be advertised on labels is 30+. If you’re of a certain age, you may remember the land “down under” in conjunction with warnings of distant thunder (courtesy of 80s greats, Men at Work). In reality, abundant sunshine is the order of the day for Aussies, and the populace takes almost daily sunscreen application as a fact of life. Paying attention to how they deal with intense sun should prove instructional.
But we digress…here are the reasons SPF over 50 is best avoided:
- They’re Only Marginally Better: SPF 100 sunscreen has been shown in numerous studies to offer only slightly better protection than SPF 50, yet those using these higher SPF sunscreens naturally believe they are receiving much more protection. Here’s the reality: properly-applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98% of UVB rays. How about SPF 100? It blocks 99%. The false sense of extra protection is the real problem in this instance. Many believe SPF 100 will last longer, and thus end up with sunburns.
- Poor UVA/UVB Balance: The SPF of a sunscreen product is determined by chemicals that specifically block UVB rays, which are the primary cause of sunburn and non-melanoma skin cancers. However, UVA rays penetrate the skin more than UVB rays and are more difficult to block with sunscreen. Somewhat ironically, FDA restrictions push sunscreen makers toward blocking UVB rays. It has been found that the higher SPF products (above 50) have the worst balance, and thus allow users to be exposed to more UVA rays, which can suppress the immune system and lead to the development of melanoma. Most high-SPF U.S. sunscreens do such a poor job of blocking UVA rays that they can’t be legally sold in Europe!
- They May Not Be High SPF: Industry studies of SPF 100 sunscreen in the U.S. showed that the actual SPF levels of the products tested ranged from 37 to 75. Tiny changes in test environments – much smaller than would be found in real world applications of sunscreen at the beach or elsewhere – were found to be responsible for drastically different SPF readings during testing. This reality is magnified by high SPF products, leading us to repeat the mantra that properly-applied SPF 30-50+ sunscreen is really all you need. At the time of this writing, the U.S. FDA is proposing that the allowed limit of advertised SPF be changed to SPF 60+.
- High-SPF Sunscreens May Have Greater Risks: To attain those high SPF ratings (even if they aren’t quite 100), products contain higher concentrations of UV-blocking chemicals. In case you’ve missed it, this whole sunscreen selection game is a balancing act. There are safe sunscreens you can use for your kids, but as the concentrations of active ingredients increase, so do the risks associated with them.
Your Kids’ Sunscreen Questions Answered
Parents have a lot to think about. To keep things simple, here are some of the most common questions we hear about sunscreens for children. Chances are good that if you have a question about how to use sunscreen or what to avoid in sunscreen, we’ll answer below.
Is it actually safe for my baby to go outside in the sun?
It is, but proceed with caution. According to the EWG report:
Infants under 6 months old should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible, as their skin is not yet protected by melanin. Babies who join their families outside should be covered in protective, tightly woven but loose-fitting clothing and wear sun hats. Parents can use a stroller’s canopy or hood to make shade, or use an umbrella.
When should I use baby sunscreen? At what age is baby sunscreen safe to use?
As noted, doctors and other experts recommend that children under the age of 6 months not be exposed to the sun for any significant length of time. If they will be exposed directly to the sun, a well-chosen sunscreen is the recommended last resort to keeping them covered up. After 6 months, your children can begin to enjoy the outdoors without quite so much protection, but that’s when a carefully-selected sunscreen comes into play.
Should I choose PABA free?
Well, yes. But you’ll have a hard time finding sunscreen with PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) in it these days, since those with PABA are no longer sold in the U.S. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) now deems PABA unsafe and ineffective for sunscreen use. While PABA is a naturally-occuring amino acid found in B-complex vitamins, its use in sunscreen has been linked most prominently to allergic reactions and, worse, skin abnormalities and liver damage. PABA absorbs ultraviolet rays, thus its widespread use in sunscreens beginning in the 1970s. If you do happen to come across sunscreen that has PABA, don’t use it.
What about paraben free?
The FDA has conducted research on parabens, but does not yet have conclusive evidence that they cause human health problems. However, some studies indicate that they can cause issues, and we thus recommend avoiding products with parabens. They are used as a preservative – most notably in cosmetics and hair products – to inhibit the development of mold and to extend the shelf life of products. But some studies indicate that parabens can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body, which can lead to a number of health problems and unwanted side effects in both men and women. At this point, it seems quite likely that their use will be banned from sunscreens and cosmetics in the future. EWG, for example, notes that parabens should be a “no-go”.
What is the EWG?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit, non-partisan organization focused on human health and the environment. The group reviews products and their ingredients and provides information to consumers to allow them to make informed decisions about the products they purchase and use. EWG employs scientists, policy experts, lawyers, and other professionals. They do this as a means of informing the public and helping to empower consumers to demand change that aligns with the health and well-being of both people and the planet.
What are EWG ratings for sunscreen?
These are an easy way for parents to make decisions about what sunscreens to use for their children. EWG has done the work for us, so if you want a no-hassle, down and dirty way to make your selection, you can quite literally click on a sunscreen with a rating of “1” and find out where to buy it, knowing full well that a team of scientists and advocates have done more research than you and I could ever hope to complete in our free time. A color-coded and numbered rating shows prominently near the top of the ratings page. Our favorite sunscreen, for example, shows a large “1” in a green bubble, indicating the top score a product can receive. The rating will also show the scale so you can quickly surmise that “1/green” is good and “10/red” is not.
For sunscreen in particular, two scales are shown, with an arrow indicator pointing to a category rating. For sunscreens these are “health concerns” and “UVA/UVB Balance.”
But the distilled information doesn’t stop there. The rating also shows the full ingredients list, with an individual rating for each ingredient and an indication of how much data are available to make that judgement.
Help! I got sunscreen in my baby’s eyes. What do I do?
First, don’t panic. Sunscreen will cause pain, but no lasting damage to the eye, according to ophthalmologists. It’s actually your child’s tears that will do the best job of ridding the eye of the burning sunscreen, but you can use saline solution, water, or lubricating eye drops to help. Ultimately, however, you’ll find that the pain is temporary and will soon be forgotten. Sunglasses, even for very young children, are a good idea to protect the eyes and surrounding areas from the sun (plus they’ll look cool).
What about thinkbaby sunscreen? Is it safe? What are the thinkbaby sunscreen ingredients?
We’re fans. We buy it, we use it (adults and children alike), and we sell it. Of course, we settled on this particular brand only after using EWG to do the heavy research lifting for us. Then, once we started using it, we found that we liked how it felt on the skin and how it smells. The fact that our fair-skinned brood keeps sunburn-free during the summer is a testament to its effectiveness (as well as our mad parenting skills for always remembering to apply liberally).
And, yes, it is safe. EWG gives it a rating of “1,” which is as good as it gets on their scale. thinkbaby SPF 50+ sunscreen contains no problematic ingredients and, as noted, it’s also pleasant to the touch and by smell.
thinkbaby Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50+ Ingredients
Here is the complete list of ingredients in thinkbaby Sunscreen (SPF 50+):
Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 20%
Inactive Ingredients: Purified Water, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Capric Caprylic Triglycerides, Sorbitan Stearate (Coconut Based), Pine Wood Resin, Vegetable Glycerin, Cetyl Dimethicone, Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Magnesium Sulfate (Epsom Salt), Sunflower Oil, Jojoba Oil, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Tocopherols (Vitamin E), Olive Oil, Raspberry Seed Oil, Cranberry Seed Oil, Hyaluronic Acid (Made From Vegetable), Glucose, Glucose Oxidase, Lactoperoxidase, Papaya
Sunscreen Labels are Confusing
If you really take the time to look at the labeling on sunscreen tubes or containers they are, in fact, pretty confusing…unless you know what all the major points mean:
- SPF – stands for “Sun Protection Factor” and measures effectiveness of a product in preventing sunburn, which is primarily caused by UVB rays. A range of 30-50+ is recommended, as highlighted throughout this article.
- Hypoallergenic – while there isn’t a legal designation for what this actually means, its intent is to communicate a certain “safeness” from allergic reactions. The presence of this term doesn’t necessarily mean the product you’re considering is a bad one. But the term itself is meaningless and many items touted as “hypoallergenic” have been found to contain allergens (methylisothiazolinone is the most common one cropping up in 2019).
- Broad Spectrum – indicates how a sunscreen stands up to both UVB and UVA radiation. The FDA requires a test for this, but the European tests are much stricter and many American brands fail the tests in Europe. The EWG sunscreen guide can provide better information than what the product manufacturers and marketers come up with!
- Water Resistant – sunscreens aren’t waterproof, but the FDA requires testing of water resistance. These tests indicate the SPF value of the product after exposure to water for 40 or 80 minutes. But, just because a sunscreen is water resistant doesn’t mean you don’t have to reapply after getting in the water or sweating.
- Active Ingredients – those to look for are zinc oxide and avobenzone, both of which provide good protection from UVA rays as well as the UVB rays that cause sunburn. One active ingredient to avoid is oxybenzone.
- Directions & Other Measures – the primary cause of sunburn is not following directions or relying on sunscreen as the entirety of a sun protection plan for kids. “Apply liberally” really does mean “use a whole lot.” It’s also important to remember often missed places, like the tops of feet; areas of the body covered by clothing but may be uncovered at times (kids will be kids); tops of ears; and other places. As always, reapply sunscreen after drying off, getting wet or going in the water, or sweating. Other measures include sunglasses, time in the shade under a tree or umbrella, and appropriate clothing.
- Inactive Ingredients – there are various inactive ingredients to watch out for, though these tend to be less of an issue than the active sun-blocking ingredients. It is, however, best to avoid retinyl palmitate and parabens.
Final Summary (Keep it Simple)
If the prospect of doing something so simple as selecting a sunscreen for your kids is beginning to feel overwhelming, fear not. You can read about all the latest developments, research every ingredient yourself, and go down the “rabbit hole” of worry. However, chances are quite good that even at the end of a long research session or two on your own, you’ll come to the same conclusions reached by EWG, which makes their guidelines the “go to” for moms and dads who want the best for their children but – like almost everyone on the planet – are strapped for time. Essentially, this makes the question of how to choose baby sunscreen an easy one to answer, without taking up too much of your time.
If you’re using EWG as your guide, every chemical they warn against is taken into account in the simple rating. None of the really bad ingredients are present in their best-rated sunscreens (those receiving scores of “1” or “2”). So if you want to compress hours of research into about 5 minutes, EWG is for you. Note: we have no relationship with EWG or any other groups that perform independent research on these products. We, like you, are consumers in search of products that are good for ourselves, our kids, and the planet.
We like, use, and carry thinkbaby SPF 50+ sunscreen because we did the research when seeking a product for our own kids. It feels good on the skin, smells good, and has a great rating from EWG. It is by no means the only quality product available to you, but as with all products on Seeds to Berries, it is one we’ve used and recommend!