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Differences between kids' sunscreen and adult sunscreen: How to pick one for your child and apply it correctly

What’s better for kids than running and playing outside? What’s worse than putting them to bed with a painful sunburn?

The solution should be simple: Parents should aim to apply sunscreen on kids every day. Easier said than done, we know!

Here is everything you need to know about kids’ sunscreen. 

Is kids’ sunscreen different from adult sunscreen?

Many of the recommendations for skin protection from the American Academy of Dermatology are the same for children and adults.

However, children's skin tends to have greater sensitivity to chemicals such as synthetic fragrances or binding agents in products. Since sunscreen acts as a barrier against the sun's rays, parents should pay particular attention to the listed ingredients.

Look for a sunscreen whose active ingredients are mineral: zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Any other active ingredients are likely chemical sunscreen ingredients, which we recommend avoiding for children. 

Who should use kids’ sunscreen?

Every person over the age of 6 months should wear sunscreen outside every day, regardless of skin tone or weather.

Sun damage and the risk of skin cancer build up over time, so everyone's skin is potentially at risk as they age. Nearly 80% of the sun's ultraviolet rays make it to the Earth's surface on cloudy days; you don't need to be able to see the sun to experience adverse effects.

Anyone can use sunscreen designed for kids. If you have sensitive skin, you may find that sunscreen designed for children is a better choice for your skin, as it may lack some common irritants.

How do kids’ sunscreen compare to adult sunscreen?

There are several differences you can expect in sunscreens for different ages.

1. Ingredients

Sunscreen products come in two varieties: chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens.

They both absorb the sun's damaging UVA and UVB rays, transforming them into heat and dispersing the radiation. The mineral sunscreens also work by partly physically blocking and scattering UV rays before they contact the deeper layers of the skin.

Chemical sunscreens

Ingredients you might see on chemical sunscreen labels include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene.

Chemical sunscreens absorb quickly into the skin, although you should apply your sunscreen at least 15 minutes prior to sun exposure for maximum protection, as the sunscreen dries and forms a film on the skin. (This is also true for mineral sunscreen.)

Be aware that researchers have demonstrated that oxybenzone is harmful to aquatic life, and the ingredient has been banned in some coastal areas.

Several chemical sunscreen ingredients are on the FDA's list for further investigation and have not been deemed “GRASE” (generally regarded as safe and effective). In general, we recommend avoiding chemical sunscreens for children or for anyone trying to conceive, pregnant, or nursing.

Mineral sunscreens

Mineral or "physical" sunscreens are composed of the minerals titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, which are also gentler on sensitive skin.

These sunscreens tend to be more difficult to blend, but work great at protecting delicate skin. The white cast of the cream may show, but tends to fade with good formulations. Some kids’ sunscreen brands are available in fun colors.

Active kids will need to reapply sunscreen more often. Look for water-resistant mineral sunscreen to reduce the chance of accidental sunburn.

2. SPF rating

It’s a myth that sunscreen's SPF indicates how many extra minutes you have before you begin to burn.

Here’s what the SPF number actually means: It tells you how long the sun’s UVB rays would take to redden your skin (assuming you apply it correctly) compared with the amount of time without sunscreen. So it would take you 30 times longer to burn with SPF 30 sunscreen than without it.

Always look for a minimum of SPF 30, whether for adults or children.

Teens who wear makeup should apply SPF 30 sunscreen as a first layer because cosmetics only provide minimal protection from UV rays.

The estimated protection time, however, does not account for perspiration, swimming, or friction against the skin.

Reapply all sunscreen every forty-five minutes to two hours, regardless of SPF rating, to ensure that kids' sensitive skin doesn't burn.

3. Coverage

Both kids’ sunscreen and adult sunscreen should provide broad-spectrum coverage against UVA and UVB rays.

The two types of radiation damage the skin visibly and invisibly: UVA rays may cause hyperpigmentation, and skin cancer, while UVB rays cause sunburns, cataracts, and skin cancer.

Mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are better options for kids, due to the lower chance of skin irritation or hormonal effects. They are the only two sunscreen active ingredients deemed by the FDA as GRASE (generally regarded as safe and effective). 

Zinc is also the broadest-spectrum sunscreen filter on the market (covering both UVA and UVB), even though it’s important to reapply it more often to ensure optimal protection.

Additionally, older children who would prefer to use a self-tanner sunscreen should check whether the product offers UV protection as part of the overall coverage. Teens with acne-prone or oily skin should try several water-resistant sunscreens to test how they work with their skin, as water-resistant sunscreens tend to have more oils or silicone that may block pores and cause breakouts.

4. Application method

When kids want to dash out the door to the beach or to a playdate, it's not always easy to restrain them for a kids’ sunscreen application session!

Mineral sunscreen's thicker consistency takes more time to apply, frustrating some busy kids in the process, but mineral sunscreen is still the safest choice. 

Chemical spray sunscreen can seem like a reasonable choice for quick and easy application. However, those sprays need to be applied ahead of time and very thoroughly, and spraying near the face should be avoided because of inhalation risk. They also carry some of the downsides we outlined above.

Mineral sunscreen sprays are available and may be a convenient alternative; keep in mind that they still require using a sufficient amount (more than you think!), rubbing that amount in properly, applying ahead of time, and avoiding the face due to inhalation concerns.

How can kids sunscreen be a practical choice for parents and children?

Your child's time at the beach or in nature can be fun while also safely protecting against short- or long-term skin damage.

Check the labels of any kids’ sunscreen you're considering and determine what product will offer the most effective protection with the safest ingredients.