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Sunscreen 101 for Babies and Young Children

It is officially summertime and that means taking advantage of the beautiful weather and long summer days.  Along with having fun in the sun comes a reminder for the importance of practicing sun safety for the whole family.  Choosing a sunscreen for infants and toddlers is not always straightforward, but knowing the difference between physical sunscreen vs chemical sunscreens can help.

Going to the pharmacy to pick out a sunscreen for infants and toddlers, and children – is overwhelming! 

There are so many brands and different price points it is hard to feel like you are picking “the right one.”

Some sunscreens can be very pricey, but more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better!

Babies and children have more sensitive skin than adults.  So selecting a sunscreen for infants and toddlers, and children, can sometimes take some thought.

Choosing the right sunscreen for infants and toddlers is very important!  Babies and children have more sensitive skin than adults.  This makes them more prone to skin irritation from sunscreen and also more likely to get sunburns. 

A baby’s skin is thinner and they also have a larger body surface area so a sunburn would be even more serious in babies than older children and adults. 

Look for the words “broad-spectrum” on the product – this means that the product protects against both UVA and UVB rays.  The Canadian Dermatology Association recommends an SPF of at least 30.

Babies under 6 months of age typically should not wear sunscreen and they should not be placed in direct sunlight.  If avoiding the sun is not an option, a sunscreen with SPF of at least 30 can be applied to exposed skin such as the face and back of hands.

Physical sunscreen vs chemical sunscreen

It is important to read labels, as there are actually different kinds of sunscreen out there, mainly physical sunscreen vs chemical sunscreen.  Many sunscreens contain both physical and chemical sunscreen ingredients.  But is there a difference between physical sunscreen vs chemical sunscreen?

What is physical sunscreen?

So what is physical sunscreen exactly?  Physical sunscreens work by forming a barrier on the surface of the skin and reflect the UV rays away from the skin.  Because they are not absorbed into the skin, they are less likely to cause any skin irritation and more recommended for babies and young children.

A physical sunscreen also contains more natural ingredients.  The most common being zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Our family uses physical sunscreen.

What is chemical sunscreen?

What is chemical sunscreen exactly?  A chemical sunscreen contains ingredients that absorb into the top layers of the skin.  Chemical sunscreens absorb the suns UV rays before they can damage the skin. 

Some of the most common ingredients in chemical sunscreens are avobenzone, homosalate, oxybenzophenone, and octinoxate. There have been studies that suggest that some ingredients in chemical sunscreen may be absorbed into the body. At this time it is still unclear if there are harms associated with this.

How to apply sunscreen, correctly?

One of the most common reasons that sunscreens may not work their best is that they aren’t applied properly, or they are not applied often enough.   

Here are some tips on how to apply sunscreen. 

Applying sunscreen properly will help protect yourself and family while playing in the sunshine.

  • Apply sunscreens uniformly and liberally: An average adult requires about 6 to 9 teaspoons for total body application
  • Apply before you go in the sun: Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes prior to sun exposure. Reapply 15 to 30 minutes later for best effect
  • Re-apply often: Redo after swimming, sweating or toweling
  • Use SPF lip balms
  • Use a creme or a lotion product: Sprays often not applied well and do not provide adequate coverage.  A cream or lotion is often used better
  • Reapply every 2 hours
  • Purchase water-resistant or sport products: they may stay on a bit better
  • Do not buy ones with insect repellent in them.  Use these products separately
  • Do a patch test: patch test in a small area if you are prone to skin reactions

Prevention is key when it comes to sun damage and sun burns

The most important part about practicing sun safety is prevention.  Knowing how to apply sunscreen, what sunscreen to apply and how often to apply it, will help protect your little ones skin from the sun.  Also wearing appropriate clothing, hats and sunglasses are useful for protecting you and your family against the sun’s harmful rays. 

You can also avoid the sun during peak hours, typically 11am to 3pm and seek shade often. 

This post was co-authored by Erin Manchuk, BScPharm, BCGP and Stephanie Liu, MD, MSc, CCFP, BHSc.


Sambandan DR, Ratner D.  Sunscreens: an overview and update.  J Am Acad Dermatol. 2011;64(4):748

Paller AS, Hawk JL, Honig P, et al. New insights about infant and toddler skin: implications for sun protection.  Pediatrics.  2011 Jul;128(1):92-102.

Isedeh P, Osterwalder U, Lim HW.  Teaspoon rule revisited: proper amount of sunscreen application.  Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed. 2013 Feb;29(1):55-6. (Accessed 21 June 2019)

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