Not all sunscreen products are created equal—here are some things you need to know.

By Janine Clements
July 27, 2020
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With summer in full swing, your kids are likely begging to hit the pool or the beach. While it’s important to follow safe practices when swimming during the pandemic, it’s also important to protect their skin from the sun’s burning rays.

Not only is getting a sunburn painful, too much sun exposure can also cause premature aging and potentially lead to skin cancer. In fact, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), just a few serious sunburns can increase your child’s risk of skin cancer later in life. Of course, the main way to protect kids from sun exposure is by applying sunscreen, but according to Carla Burns, research analyst for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), many sunscreen products don’t provide sufficient UV protection or contain potentially harmful ingredients that are best to avoid. 

For starters, there are two main types of sunscreen you will find on shelves: mineral and chemical (although there are a few hybrids that contain both minerals and chemicals). Mineral sunscreens are physical blockers that stay on the surface of the skin and protect it by deflecting the sun’s rays. The active ingredients are usually less irritating than chemical sunscreens, which also makes them good for sensitive skin, eczema, and skin allergies. With chemical sunscreen, the active ingredients absorb UV light and also absorb into your skin. Some of these examples include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. The EWG recommends avoiding oxybenzone altogether because it is a known hormone disruptor and is associated with health issues.

So what should you do when choosing a sunscreen? First, check the ingredients on the packaging and cross-check it with EWG's list of the safest (and most harmful) options for your family. For babies and kids with sensitive skin, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends opting for mineral-based products. Nikita Lakdawala, MD, a board-certified pediatric dermatologist at NYU, advises using broad spectrum sunscreen that provides UVA and UVB coverage with an SPF of 30 or higher. 

“You should ideally choose mineral-based sunscreen products containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are both considered safe and effective by the FDA,” says Burns, who helps produce the EWG annual guide to sunscreens, which this year featured over 1,400 formulations, to help consumers find safer, more effective products.

Burns also recommends sticking to lotions or sticks. “Although sprays might appeal to families with small children who don’t like to sit still, it is difficult to apply enough of it to provide adequate protection and there are also inhalation concerns,” she says.

Dr. Lakdawala recommends that, in addition to using sunscreen, children should stay out of the sun, especially between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest, and also wear protective clothing such as rash guards, hats, and UV protection sunglasses when outside. It’s important to remember that the FDA does not recommend sunscreen for babies under six months old.

There are currently over 200 sunscreens that meet the EWG’s criteria, so if you need some help navigating the mass sunscreen market, here are some sunscreens that the experts themselves recommend.

1

Unlike many mineral sunscreens with high SPFs that leave a sticky, white residue, this surprisingly affordable sunscreen applies easily and vanishes on your skin. The non-greasy, water-resistant formula comes in a tube and contains 20 percent zinc oxide, which means great, long-lasting protection.

To buy: $10; amazon.com.

2

Not only does this sunscreen rub in clear (hurray!) thanks to the uncoated clear zinc oxide, it's also made with 97 percent organic ingredients and smells like an orange cream popsicle. It is one of EWG’s best rated sunscreens for kids and babies for 2020 and gets great customer reviews. Other star ingredients include sunflower and jojoba oil to gently moisturize skin.

To buy: $11; target.com.

3

If you’re looking for a sheer, non-sticky sunscreen lotion that’s safe for your little ones, this winner gets the thumbs up from the EWG and dermatologists. Formulated specifically for babies and toddlers, it is fragrance-free and contains both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, while camu camu and green microalgae provide antioxidant protection. Also comes in a non-aerosol spray.

To buy: $26; supergoop.com.

4

Not only is this sunscreen good for your skin, it is good for the environment. The lightweight, gentle formula is reef-friendly, vegan, gluten-free, and cruelty-free. It is water-resistant and contains 12% zinc oxide and chamomile, which is good for children with sensitive skin, as well as coconut oil and jojoba oil to moisturize it.

To buy: $16; target.com.

5

A great one for babies and kids with skin allergies including eczema, this award-winning sunscreen contains titanium oxide and other eco-friendly ingredients such as calendula, French lavender, and clary sage essential oils to calm your skin.

To buy: $27; amazon.com.

6

Fans of organic products will love this mineral sunscreen. The water-resistant formula contains both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide with 87 percent organic ingredients including goji berry and pomegranate extracts, which act as antioxidants. Plus, it's vegan, gluten-free, cruelty-free, and comes in recyclable packaging.

To buy: $13; amazon.com.

7

When it comes to a clear sunscreen made without any chemical nasties, this sunscreen for sensitive skin checks all the boxes. While not specifically for kids, the plant-based formula is safe for all ages. It is fragrance free and contains calendula to soothe and moisturize sensitive skin. To boot, the water-resistant formula is reef-friendly, which makes it ideal for splashing about in the ocean.

To buy: $12; amazon.com.

8

Eco-conscious families will love this creamy, organic sunscreen, which gets a "1" rating from EWG and is on their best sunscreens for kids and babies list for 2020. The reef-friendly sunscreen comes in an eco-friendly tin and promises never to sting the eyes. It is packed with nourishing natural ingredients including calendula and chamomile, and contains zero synthetic chemicals.

To buy: $17; amazon.com.

9

This best-selling sunscreen lotion from Australian brand Blue Lizard is a hybrid sunscreen containing zinc oxide and octocrylene. It is non-greasy, unscented, and water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, which makes it great for kids who are in the water or on the go. Clever technology means the bottle turns blue in sun, which acts as a handy reminder when you need to apply.

To buy: $15; amazon.com.

10

For a sunscreen lotion that is safe for your tribe and has maximum staying power, this EWG top-rated one is hard to beat. As well as being unscented, it's made from natural ingredients that won’t irritate sensitive skin or eczema.

To buy: $12; amazon.com.