It's tough enough to decode your sun protection products as a health-conscious adult. But when it comes to protecting our kids from the sun, the ins and outs of sunblock and sunscreen are even more confusing. And the risks are even greater: According to the CDC, a few serious burns during childhood can increase your child's risk for skin cancer as an adult. Here's how to ensure your little one's skin is protected during your outings this summer and all year round:
Sunblock vs. sunscreen for kids
When it comes to protecting your skin, one of the biggest confusions is the difference between sunscreen and sunblock. Although we often use these terms synonymously, these two products protect your dermis in very different ways.
When you wear sunblock, ingredients such as titanium and zinc oxide sit on the surface of your skin, creating a barrier that physically blocks harmful UV rays from entering your skin. Titanium and zinc oxide don't get absorbed into your skin, and are relatively gentle, making sunblock products that use these compounds a safe choice for your child.
Sunscreens, on the other hand, feature ingredients that get absorbed into your skin. Once in your skin, compounds such as benzophonones, oxybenzones and avobenzone convert UV rays from light to heat energy. Although these products boast sun protection for up to six hours, that added protection comes at a price: more chemicals. Though still generally regarded as safe, these chemicals are more likely to cause irritation in your child than titanium or zinc oxide because they are absorbed into the skin.
Just remember: You want to select a sunblock that protects your child from both UVA and UVB rays ("broad-spectrum" protection), and don't let a cloudy day fool you: Just because the sun is hiding doesn't mean you don't need to protect your child from it's harmful UV rays.
The takeaway: When it comes to sun protection for your child, sunblocks are your best bet.
Organic sun protection for kids
Lately, the "go green" movement has made its way into the sunblock and sunscreen arena, with a host of new products claiming to provide organic sun protection. Although these organic products use titanium and zinc oxide just like most sunblocks, they are also free of synthetic preservatives, fragrances, colors and harmful chemicals. These products have become popular among parents who want to minimize their child's exposure to chemicals or unnatural materials.
The takeaway: So long as your organic sun protection product uses zinc oxide and titanium, it's a good choice for your little tyke.
The best sun protection for children under 6 months old
If your child is younger than 6 months old, it's best to keep him or her out of the sun as much as possible, or to cover up your baby as much as possible with long sleeves and pants to reduce sun exposure. But if you and your infant absolutely need to go on an outdoor adventure, use a sunblock that has an SPF rating of 30+ and features titanium and zinc oxide. There are numerous hypoallergenic products on the market that use these safe sun-blocking compounds, and these may be a good choice for your family. Whether you go the organic, non-organic or hypoallergenic route, make sure to apply sunblock to your infant 15 minutes before going outside, then every two hours, to ensure your baby's skin stays safe.
The best sun protection for children ages 6 months to 5 years old
When spending time outside with your toddler or preschooler, continue to choose SPF 30+ sunblocks with zinc and titanium oxide. Pay special attention to your child's burn-prone areas like the ears, nose, shoulders and back of the neck, which are especially vulnerable to the sun. Steer clear of sunscreens that use chemical formulas to achieve long-lasting sun protection, which may or may not provide better protection but undoubtedly feature more chemicals to bolster this claim.
The best sun protection for children ages 5+
Once kids hit school age, they're much more likely to spend extended periods of time outside. At age 5, many skin sensitivities go away, which leads some parents to begin using chemical sunscreen formulas rather than blocks.
There haven't been any studies to date that show chemical sunscreens are unsafe in the long-term, and the FDA continues to OK these products as sun protection. However, the jury is still out on whether chemicals that convert sunlight to surface heat are good for a kid's sensitive skin.
The takeaway: Go with sunblock at least until your child is 5 years old, if not longer, as an added skin precaution.
It's not just about the sunblock
As important as it is to apply sunblock to your child before going into the sun, it's just as important to use other tools to shield your little one from the sun's dangerous rays as much as possible. Sunglasses are essential for protecting your child's eyes from UV rays that can lead to cataracts later on. Clothing and hats with UV protection are another great way to give your kids additional protection, especially when they'll be spending a lot of time outside and you won't be present to reapply.
It's ultimately up to the parent to decide when to start applying sunscreens to their children, and how much sun exposure their kids should get. But no matter your parenting preference, your safest sun protection bet for your young kids is sunblock using non-harmful titanium and zinc oxides. And on a side note: If your child does get burnt during your outdoor adventure, apply aloe to the burn area and increase his or her fluid intake to facilitate healthy healing.