Childhood just wouldn’t be complete without spending countless happy hours playing outside. And being outdoors is good for us—it gives our bodies the chance to get acquainted with countless varieties of friendly flora to boost microbial health!
But as science uncovers the dangers of overexposure to the sun, it’s only natural to be concerned about how much time our kids are spending outdoors. Especially since their skin is so pure and delicate, and their precious bodies are still developing.
Enter sunscreen—a convenient way to minimize the UVA and UVB exposure your kids receive when they’re out catching some sunshine. But all sunscreens are not alike, and many come with serious risks of their own. To make your best decision (and so your kids can enjoy the safest possible summer) it’s important to understand all the facts.
Sunscreen Basics 101
Whether it comes in a tube or a bottle—and whether it’s a lotion or a spray—every sunscreen you can buy fits into one of two major categories, each of which has it’s own mechanism for filtering UV rays:
• Chemical sunscreens: The bulk of popular commercial sunscreens fall into this classification, which involves the use of synthetic chemical filters—typically between two and six chemical sunscreen ingredients per product. Since some of these chemicals may have dangerous and unpleasant side effects, it makes sense to be particularly wary of this category for use on children.
• Mineral sunscreens: This category relies on the naturally occurring minerals zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to filter the sun’s rays. While there are no sunscreens out there with absolutely zero concerns, mineral sunscreens (especially those that are zinc-based) are ranked as the safest option for kids (and adults too!) by the Environmental Working Group.
What About SPF?
The SPF number printed on sunscreen packaging is supposed to be a measure of how much sun protection your child is getting. So you might imagine that one could safely spend twice as much time in the sun with an SPF 100 product than one with an SPF of 50, right?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. According to the Environmental Working Group, high-SPF sunscreens offer only marginally more protection than mid-range SPF products. This means opting for SPF 90 or SPF 110 isn’t shielding your child's health the way you might have thought. In addressing this subject, the FDA has even stated that SPF ratings higher than 50 are “inherently misleading,” and many other countries worldwide have already capped SPFs at 50.1
But the problem with high-SPFs goes far beyond just not getting the level of protection you were expecting. Many of these high-SPF formulas contain denser concentrations of potentially harmful chemicals.2 So the higher the SPF, the greater the exposure to these chemicals your child may receive with every application!
Another area of concern is that UVA/UVB protection may be poorly balanced in high-SPF products. So even if your child doesn’t burn when using these sunscreens, his skin (and health) may still be vulnerable to serious damage from the non-burning, UVA rays of the sun.2
High-SPFs may also lull parents into a false sense of security. Believing their kids are practically immune to the sun once they’ve applied sunscreen, they may relax about long days spent under the hot sun without covering up or reapplying lotion.
To best protect your child’s skin, an SPF of up to 50, reapplied every few hours (along with sensible measures to limit total daily sun exposure) should do the trick.
Red Flags: Dangerous Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid In addition to being almost impossible to spell or pronounce, the major ingredients in chemical sunscreens may pose some very real health risks for your kids. Here are a few ingredients to avoid:
• Oxybenzone: Penetrates skin 1% to 9%, and may cause skin damage, reproductive system alterations, and hormonal changes. It also can cause skin reactions. Traces of oxybenzone are found in the bodies of almost all Americans, and even mother’s milk.3,4,5
• Octinoxate: Penetrates skin 1%, disrupts hormones, and may cause reproductive, thyroid, behavioral changes, and skin reactions. This chemical is also often found in mother’s milk.3,5
• Homosalate: Penetrates skin 1%, and disrupts hormones.3,5
• Octisalate: Penetrates skin, and may rarely also cause skin reactions.3,5,6
• Octocrylene: Penetrates skin, found in mother’s milk, and has high rates of skin reactions.3,7
• Avobenzone: Slight skin penetration, high rates of skin reaction when this chemical breaks down.8,9
But it’s not just the active chemical sunscreen ingredients you need to watch out for when selecting the best sun protection for your kids. Inactive ingredients, which may compose as much as 50% to 70% of sunscreens, may also pose health risks. The list of these is practically endless, but a few to avoid include:
• Methylisothiazolinone: Included as a preservative, this chemical brings a high occurrence of skin reactions.10
• Retinyl palmitate: A form of vitamin A (which sounds like it should be harmless!), this substance applied topically can cause skin damage when combined with sun exposure.11
• Parabens: Used as a preservative, parabens may cause hormone disruption, skin reactions, and both developmental and reproductive damage. Because parabens are also antimicrobial, they likely harm the skin microbiome, too.12, 13
The Nano/Non-Nano Question
Often the mineral ingredients recommended by the Environmental Working Group as the safest option contain nanoparticles, which may worry some parents because of skin penetration concerns. The good news is that much research shows that nano zinc particles aren’t absorbed at all, and even when absorption has been found to occur, less than 0.01% made it into the bloodstream after applying nano zinc sunscreen twice daily for 5 consecutive days.14
Of course it’s a personal choice, depending on what you’re comfortable with for your child—and both nano and non-nano mineral sunscreens with excellent EWG safety ratings are widely available. In any case, you may want to avoid nanoparticles in children’s lip sunscreens, because kids may accidentally ingest them—and the possible effect of that on the gastrointestinal tract is still unknown. Additionally, it’s important to be aware that it’s really dangerous to inhale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide directly, so stay away from all powdered zinc and titanium products, as well as all spray mineral sunscreens—regardless of particle size.
Top Children’s Sunscreen Picks
If it’s starting to sound like choosing the right sunscreen for your kids is dreadfully complicated, relax. It’s not all that daunting—you’ve just got to read the labels carefully. Look for a mineral sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or less, a good UVA/UVB balance, and a list of ingredients that are natural and recognizable. Avoid anything containing harsh chemicals that might harm your child’s developing skin microbiome or health. Here are two of our favorite sunscreens for little ones:
Badger Baby Sunscreen SPF 30: Gentle enough for babies, and great for kids of all ages, Badger Baby Sunscreen earns a top safety rating from EWG, and has a good UVA/UVB balance. This mineral sunscreen is non-nano zinc-based and has a wholesome ingredient list that includes seabuckthorn fruit, calendula, chamomile, beeswax, and sunflower oil. Many of the ingredients are organic.
Adorable Baby Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30+: This non-nano zinc-based mineral sunscreen has an excellent UVA/UVB rating, is terrific for babies and kids, and carries a top EWG safety rating. It's simple, botanically based ingredients include grape seed oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil, beeswax, and cocoa butter. Many of these ingredients are organic.
What About Making Sunscreen at Home?
Due to very legitimate worries about unhealthy ingredients that turn up in so many commercial products, DIY sunscreens have been gaining popularity in recent years. But if you’re thinking about making your own sunscreen for your kids, there are actually some really serious concerns to consider:
• SPF inconsistency: While many kitchen ingredients such as carrot seed oil, red raspberry seed oil, and coconut oil are reported to have SPF qualities, the results of scientific testing of these ingredients have been wildly inconsistent. Depending on the source and quality of each individual ingredient, SPF values may vary dramatically. This means a child using a DIY lotion may not really be getting expected SPF levels.
• UVA/UVB uncertainty: There’s no way to determine the UVA/UVB balance in homemade sunscreens. So even if you luck out and effectively protect your child from burning, he may still be getting a big dose of rays that could damage his skin at a cellular level.
• Unpredictable stability: DIY lotions likely lack the stability of commercially prepared formulas, and there isn’t a reliable way to determine their useful shelf life.
When it comes to safeguarding your precious kids, you might do best to choose a mineral sunscreen that contains only ingredients you’d use if you were creating your own recipe. This way you get the best of both worlds: a safe, natural product that’s also been tested for reliable SPF protection, UVA/UVB balance, and shelf stability.
More Ways for Kids to Stay Safe in the Sun
As effective as it is, sunscreen alone isn’t enough to keep your kids safe and happy in the great outdoors. These simple strategies will take your kids’ sun protection up a serious notch:
• Cover up. Putting on a wide brimmed hat and clothing (when not in the water) significantly reduces risk of sunburn and sun damage.
• Find some shade. Playing under a beach umbrella, awning, or the branches of a leafy tree also measurably cuts sunburn and sun damage risk.
• Wear UV protective sunglasses. Since you can’t protect kids’ eyes with sunscreen, offer them some fun, stylish, UV protective shades.
• Limit midday sun time. Rather than let them bake all day, limit kids’ time in the sun, especially between 10am and 2pm when its rays are the strongest.
• Supplement with a probiotic. While it’s still important to be careful about sun exposure, supplementing with a high quality, time-released probiotic like PRO-Kids may help minimize the harmful effects of UV rays.15, 16
Interestingly, recent studies show vitamin D (which is also great for gut health!) seems to have a protective effect that buffers the sun’s damaging potential, so skin better handles the sun exposure it receives.17,18 Sun safety for kids then becomes something of a balancing act—riding the fine line between allowing kids sufficient time outdoors for their bodies to manufacture protective levels of vitamin D and not overdoing sun exposure to the point where harm is done. When considering this issue, you may want to discuss vitamin D supplementation with your pediatrician to see if it’s appropriate for your kids in terms of sun protection and overall health.
Choosing a safe, effective sunscreen and exercising common sense about sun exposure lets your kids enjoy fun times in the sun with minimal risk. So grab your sunscreen, some hats, and your very coolest shades. It’s time to create some amazing summer memories with your entire family!
1. Department Of Health And Human Services Food and Drug Administration. (2007). Sunscreen Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use; Proposed Amendment of Final Monograph. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/OHRMS/DOCKETS/98fr/cd031.pdf
2. Environmental Working Group. (2017). What’s Wrong With High SPF? | EWG's 2017 Guide to Sunscreens. Retrieved from http://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/whats-wrong-with-high-spf/
3. Krause, M., Klit, A., Blomberg Jensen, M., Søeborg, T., Frederiksen, H., Schlumpf, M., … Drzewiecki, K. T. (2012). Sunscreens: are they beneficial for health? An overview of endocrine disrupting properties of UV-filters. International Journal of Andrology, 35(3), 424-436. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2605.2012.01280.x
4. Gonzalez, H., Farbrot, A., Larko, O., & Wennberg, A. (2006). Percutaneous absorption of the sunscreen benzophenone-3 after repeated whole-body applications, with and without ultraviolet irradiation. British Journal of Dermatology, 154(2), 337-340. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2005.07007.x
5. Sarveiya, V., Risk, S., & Benson, H. A. (2004). Skin penetration and systemic absorption of sunscreens after topical application. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 50(3), P75. doi:10.1016/j.jaad.2003.10.626
6. Shaw, D. W. (2006). Allergic Contact Dermatitis from Octisalate and cis-3-Hexenyl Salicylate. Dermatitis, 17(3), 152-155. doi:10.2310/6620.2006.05046
7. Hayden, C., Cross, S., Anderson, C., Saunders, N., & Roberts, M. (2005). Sunscreen Penetration of Human Skin and Related Keratinocyte Toxicity after Topical Application. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 18(4), 170-174. doi:10.1159/000085861
8. Klinubol, P., Asawanonda, P., & Wanichwecharungruang, S. (2008). Transdermal Penetration of UV Filters. Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, 21(1), 23-29. doi:10.1159/000109085
9. Nash, J. F., & Tanner, P. R. (2014). Relevance of UV filter/sunscreen product photostability to human safety. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, 30(2-3), 88-95. doi:10.1111/phpp.12113
10. Schlichte, M. J., & Katta, R. (2014). Methylisothiazolinone: An Emergent Allergen in Common Pediatric Skin Care Products. Dermatology Research and Practice, 2014, 1-4. doi:10.1155/2014/132564
11. NTP Technical Report On The Photococarcinogenisis Study of Retinoic Acid And Retinyl Palimate. (2012). Retrieved from https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/lt_rpts/tr568_508.pdf
12. Jurewicz, J., Radwan, M., Wielgomas, B., Klimowska, A., Kałużny, P., Radwan, P., … Hanke, W. (2017). Environmental exposure to parabens and sperm chromosome disomy. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 1-12. doi:10.1080/09603123.2017.1339784
13. Mínguez-Alarcón, L., & Gaskins, A. J. (2017). Female exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals and fecundity. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 29(4), 202-211. doi:10.1097/gco.0000000000000373
14. Gulson, B., McCall, M., Korsch, M., Gomez, L., Casey, P., Oytam, Y., … Greenoak, G. (2010). Small Amounts of Zinc from Zinc Oxide Particles in Sunscreens Applied Outdoors Are Absorbed through Human Skin. Toxicological Sciences, 118(1), 140-149. doi:10.1093/toxsci/kfq243
15. Bouilly-Gauthier, D., Jeannes, C., Maubert, Y., Duteil, L., Queille-Roussel, C., Piccardi, N., … Ortonne, J. (2010). Clinical evidence of benefits of a dietary supplement containing probiotic and carotenoids on ultraviolet-induced skin damage. British Journal of Dermatology, 163(3), 536-543. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.2010.09888.x
16. Satoh, T., Murata, M., Iwabuchi, N., Odamaki, T., Wakabayashi, H., Yamauchi, K., … Xiao, J. (2015). Effect ofBifidobacterium breveB-3 on skin photoaging induced by chronic UV irradiation in mice. Beneficial Microbes, 6(4), 497-504. doi:10.3920/bm2014.0134
17. Dixon, K. M., Norman, A. W., Sequeira, V. B., Mohan, R., Rybchyn, M. S., Reeve, V. E., … Mason, R. S. (2011). 1 ,25(OH)2-Vitamin D and a Nongenomic Vitamin D Analogue Inhibit Ultraviolet Radiation-Induced Skin Carcinogenesis. Cancer Prevention Research, 4(9), 1485-1494. doi:10.1158/1940-6207.capr-11-0165
18. Bashir, M., Prietl, B., Tauschmann, M., Mautner, S. I., Kump, P. K., Treiber, G., . . . Pieber, T. R. (2015). Effects of high doses of vitamin D3 on mucosa-associated gut microbiome vary between regions of the human gastrointestinal tract. European Journal of Nutrition, 55(4), 1479-1489.
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.