UPDATED: June 2016
No one wants to see an infant sporting the raw, tender skin of a sunburn, but the fear of the sun–like many other parental fears–has become hysterical.
Too Little Sun
The overzealous use of sunscreen on kids has resulted in widespread vitamin D deficiencies, which are linked to cancer, depression, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and obesity. A 2009 study found that a staggering 70 percent of children in the United States have low vitamin D levels. An occasional sunburn might be safer!
Toxic Sunburn Protection
Conventional sunscreen is loaded with chemicals, including parabens, well-established carcinogens, and oxybenzone, an endocrine disruptor that may generate free radicals when exposed to ultraviolet light. Some researchers even suspect oxybenzone to be the hidden cause of the increase in melanoma, although most studies have found no such link. Still, add this potential risk to the risk of vitamin D deficiencies, and standard sun safety doesn’t feel so safe.
Note: These days, almost all sunscreen is free of PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), and so this once ubiquitous—and possibly carcinogenic—sunblock ingredient is no longer a concern.
It was long believed that the safest way to avoid sunburn was to use a sunscreen that contains “barrier” ingredients, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Because the application of such ingredients leaves skin with a telltale white sheen, nanoparticles (teeny microscopic particles) of each are typically used in sunscreen. Recent research, however, calls into question the safety of these ingredients, as nanoparticles are small enough to penetrate cell membranes (normally, our cells recognize foreign material as an invader and blocks it out).
What’s Bigger Than a Nano
Instead of nanoparticles, some sunscreen makers use “micronized” particles—basically, these are just slightly larger than nanoparticles, but still tiny. To be exact, a nanoparticle is less than 100 nanometers in diameter, so micronized zinc oxide or titanium dioxide must be larger than this. A particle must be 50 nanometers or less to penetrate a cell membrane, by the way. Theoretically, micronized particles should be safe, although at this point I’m skittish about all sunscreens.
Sensible Sunburn Protection
Given all the confusing information on sun safety as well as sunscreen safety, the ideal scenario would be to take your child outside each day for ten or fifteen minutes, and then seek shade, thus preventing vitamin D deficiencies as well as sunburn. Obviously, this isn’t always possible, and fortunately there are several brands of sunscreen that you can feel good about using.
(For what it’s worth, my kids are super pale, go outside daily, never wear sunscreen unless we are at the beach or outside all day, and don’t seem to get sunburns…although their grandfather is black so maybe those genes help even if they didn’t present themselves in any obvious way!).
Read more about sunscreen in our blog post on nanoparticles of zinc oxide and melanoma.
Bottom line: I sell safe sunscreen, but I still tell my private clients to let their kids get some sun! Of course I’m not a pediatrician, and you should talk to your own about this—but I think it’s unnecessary and potentially harmful to keep children slathered in sunblock year-round.
Okay, I’m done preaching. Here’s some info on the Good Stuff when it comes to sunscreens (plus the Bad and the Sneaky).
The Good Stuff
Released in the summer of 2015, this spray-on sunscreen has been a game-changer for my family. It contains no chemical sun-blocking ingredients (instead using non-nano zinc oxide), and is water-proof tested for up to 80 minutes. It contains more ingredients than my top pick, Kabana, but is much easier to apply than any of the sunscreen creams on this list.
NEW for Spring 2016: Babo now also makes a spray-on, 100% zinc sunscreen, which does not contain sodium benzoate.
Unlike their lotion, Babo’s SPF 30 Sportstick does NOT contain sodium benzoate. It also utilizes non-nano, non-micronized, clear zinc, and is perfect for lips, ears, faces, and babies. I find myself using it on arms and legs, too, as it is the least white off all the Good Stuff.
Soleo makes a line of baby-safe sunscreen, consisting of organic ingredients and free of fragrance and parabens. While the label claims that the zinc oxide it contains is “non-nano,” it doesn’t specify the size of the particles, so it’s probably micronized.
Soleo sunscreen doesn’t go on completely clear, but is less pasty than Badger or Honest.
You can buy Soleo sunscreen on Amazon for $24.
For those of you who LOVE Sierra Sage like I do, here’s another product from the one of the country’s oldest herbalists. Solar Goo’s simple recipe includes just seven organic ingredients–including soothing calendula flowers to condition the skin.
Solar Goo goes on relatively clear thanks to a generous infusion of coconut oil. I use this on my face, and it’s also great for small babies.
Badger’s SPF 30 Sunscreen uses micronized zinc oxide, and a bottle of this paraben-free formula costs around $16.
Badger’s formulation is pretty thick and white and pasty. I don’t mind this for kids, but some of you seem to hate it.
You can get Badger sunscreen in a lot of health food stores, or on Amazon.
This is definitely the very best stuff, from a safety perspective.
Kabana’s Green Screen uses non-nano, non-micronized zinc oxide (so yes, it goes on a bit white). While the sunscreen itself may not be totally transparent, Kabana certainly is–they list the actual size of their zinc oxide particles right on their website, and I’ve had a number of great conversations with Kabana’s founder, Erik (he’s surprisingly accessible and obviously sincerely devoted to his mission of producing safe, green skincare).
Kabana Green Screen is available in SPF 20 or SPF 35, and the latter even contains vitamin D to combat what you’ll lose by using sunscreen. I sort of like using a sunscreen that goes on white, too. I wrote about why in a blog post last summer. You’ll pay around $19 for a four-ounce tube of Green Screen.
From a non-toxic perspective, some of Honest’s products are better than others, and this is one of the very safe ones. The zinc oxide used as a barrier ingredient may be micronized, but it is non-nano, and none of the other ingredients in Honest’s formula are concerning.
The downside? This sunscreen is extremely thick, pasty, and white. I don’t mind it too much, but my husband likens these sorts of sunscreens to applying toothpaste to the kids’ skin. Another potential downside is that many people have complained of being sunburned while using Honest sunscreen–although Honest Company says they are reformulating their sunscreen to address concerns.
I was sent a sample of this sunscreen years ago, and I gave it to my friend, Elleni, who was a new mom. She loved it and has remained loyal to the brand. While it’s very greasy, she said she prefers that over a sticky, chalky zinc-based formula (such as Honest or Badger).
At $25 for 4 ounces, Adorable Baby Sunscreen is expensive, but it’s easy to apply and contains no concerning ingredients.
Buy Adorable Baby Sunscreen on Amazon.
While normally I am not a fan of anything you spray on (because of course then you’re inhaling the ingredients), the contents of Goddess Garden are safe enough that I feel comfortable recommending this sunscreen. However, it gets a 3 on Skin Deep, which is higher than most of the products I recommend. Goddess Garden uses micronized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in its formulas. Update: Now that Acure and Babo both make safe spray sunscreens, I would choose those over Goddess Garden.
The spray bottle is $20 on Amazon.
Beautycounter’s Protect All Over Sunscreen includes a lot of ingredients, including phenoxyethanol (the Protect Stick Sunscreen does not contain phenoxyethanol). Overall, as is the case with many Beautycounter products, these sunscreens seem safe to me, but they do contain more ingredients than some of the other brands recommended here.
Note: Choosing a lower SPF sunscreen, while increasing the risk of sunburn, may combat vitamin D deficiencies, as will delaying application for ten minutes or so after going outside.
The Bad Stuff
Almost all conventional baby sunscreens should be avoided, but below are some of the very worst.
Even the fragrance-free version of Huggies Little Swimmers is toxic, containing a host of parabens; the ones with the higher SPFs are especially bad (and are more likely to contribute to vitamin D deficiencies if overused).
Stay away from all varieties of Coppertone Water Babies–it’s also packed with parabens.
The generic baby sunblocks by Walgreens and CVS also contain parabens, as do those made by No-Ad.
Rite Aid‘s private label sunscreen has retinyl palmitate (linked to cancer) and the aforementioned endocrine disruptor oxybenzone.
Retinyl palmitate is also found in most of Neutrogena’s sunscreen formulations (which also contain synthetic fragrance—AKA phthalates—and oxybenzone).
The Sneaky Stuff
Avalon Organics Baby was the first brand of sunscreen I used on Felix (we went to Mexico when he was six months old, and I was definitely worried about sunburn there). Now that I’ve exhaustively researched all sunscreen ingredients, I know that while “no parabens” is great, nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and neurotoxic benzyl alcohol are not.
EWG gives BabyGanics Cover-Up Baby Sunscreen the low score of a 2. This is shocking since the product is loaded with bad ingredients such as octinoxate (a chemical–not mineral–sunscreen ingredient!), phenoxyethanol, polysorbate-60, and lauryl PEG/PPG-18/18 methicone. BabyGanics Mineral Sunscreen Stick is a good bet, although it still contains a few ingredients of low concern, and probably utilizes micronized particles of zinc oxide and titanium oxide since it only specifies that it’s non-nano.
Aveeno has done a brilliant job marketing itself as natural, but don’t be fooled: most of their sunscreens contain oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, and synthetic fragrance blends (often made up of dozens of chemicals).
Seventh Generation Wee Baby Sunscreen contains nonparticles of zinc oxide.
Kiss My Face makes a range of sunscreens, and some are better than others. The worst of them (such as the aerosol versions) contain chemical sunblockers like endocrine-disrupting octinoxate. Even their mineral formulas contain phenoxyethanol.
Earth Best’s Organic Sunblock contains phenoxyethanol and benzyl alcohol.
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