As parents we want to make sure the sunscreen we apply to wiggly, running, summer-loving kids works as hard to protect their skin as we've worked to get it onto them. The sunscreen aisle can be kind of daunting for parents though, because with so many choices, it's hard to know which one to pick.
Unless you're a master label reader, you might not know exactly what you're looking for (or looking to avoid) in a sunscreen. Do I get the one with the highest SPF? Spray or lotion? Can I even put this on my baby? Which one is the best?
Here's what you need to know before stocking up.
SPF matters (to a point)
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies under 6 months can wear a bit of sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15 on their face and the back of their hands if there is no other way to keep them out of the sun, but shade is best for the youngest babies.
Kids over 6 months should always wear SPF 15 or higher, according to the AAP, but the American Academy of Dermatology goes even further, and recommends an SPF of 30 or higher. It's important to note that higher doesn't mean it's going to protect for longer. You can't crank it up to 100 and only apply once a day. Experts agree and are debunking the myth.
"A higher SPF may actually give you a false sense of protection (and you may stay out longer in the sun or forget to reapply sunscreen after getting out from the water), thus you may actually burn more," Dr. Ali Hendi, a board certified dermatologist, writes for Motherly.
Basically, anything in the SPF 30-50 range is going to be just fine. Although some sunscreens have higher SPF ratings on the bottle, they don't necessarily protect skin any better.
Ditch added fragrance if they have sensitive skin
A lot of parents worry about kids potentially having reactions to sunscreen, but according to the Canadian Dermatology Association, "in general, children under the age of two have more sensitive skin, but generally do not have problems with the use of sunscreens."
Kids—and anyone with sensitive skin—are actually more likely to react to preservatives or fragrances in a sunscreen than the actual sunscreen filter, so if your kiddo's skin is on the more sensitive side, steer clear of anything with added fragrances among the ingredients.
For example, Coppertone Water Babies Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 is often highly ranked in sunscreen reviews and round-ups for its price point and sun protection, but the sweet scent may not be a great fit for a baby with a history of skin sensitivity. Something like Love Sun Body Natural Mineral Sunscreen Fragrance-Free SPF 30 or La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk (Consumer Reports' top rated sunscreen pick last summer) might be a better choice.
Be aware of these controversial ingredients
There are two ingredients at the center of a hot debate in the sunscreen world: oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. Although the American Academy of Dermatology says both ingredients are safe, many parents prefer sunscreens free from them.
Oxybenzone made headlines recently as lawmakers in Hawaii have sought to ban it due to links to coral damage and some animal studies suggest it may disrupt hormones, and retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A common in skin care products) was associated with increased cancer risk in animal studies.
For these reasons, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit that releases an annual Guide to Sunscreens, does not recommend sunscreens with these ingredients.
According to EWG, parents who want to avoid oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate should consider the following suncreens when selecting from those marketed for babies and kids:
- Adorable Baby Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Lotion Sunscreen, Sensitive Skin, SPF 50
- Badger Kids Sunscreen Cream, Tangerine & Vanilla, SPF 30
- Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Baby, SPF 50
- Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Baby, SPF 30+
- BurnOut Kids Sunscreen, SPF 35
- California Baby Calendula Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- COOLA Suncare Baby Mineral Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50
- Equate Baby Zinc Sunscreen Mineral Lotion, SPF 50
- Goddess Garden Organics Kids Sport Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Hawaiian Sol Sol Kid Kare, SPF 50
- Kiss My Face Organics Kids Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30
- MDSolarSciences KidCreme Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 40
- Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 50
- Nurture My Body Baby Organic Sunscreen, SPF 32
- Sunology Mineral Sunscreen, Kids, SPF 50
- thinkbaby Sunscreen, SPF 50+
- thinksport Kids Sunscreen, SPF 50+
- Tom's of Maine Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- TruBaby Water & Play Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- TruKid Sunny Days Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Waxhead Sun Defense Baby Zinc Oxide Sunscreen, SPF 35
If you, like the American Academy of Dermatology, are not concerned about oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, you may want to take a peek at other top reviewed sunscreens.
While the EWG's most recent list does not include any spray sunscreens (due to the organization's concerns about inhalation and the thickness of coating), sprays are popular with parents (despite some concerns over chemical burns ) and Consumer Reports rates several highly, including some inexpensive store brands.
Trader Joe's Spray SPF 50+ sunscreen, Banana Boat SunComfort Clear UltraMist Spray SPF 50+ sunscreen, and CVS Health Beach Guard Clear Spray SPF 70 sunscreen all get the thumbs up from Consumer Reports, as does the Up & Up Kids Sunscreen Stick SPF 55 sunscreen from Target.
[A version of this post was published May 25, 2018. It has been updated.]