What’s the Scoop on Sunscreen?

By Erica Canova M.D.
Person squeezing sunscreen into their hand near blue towel

1. What should parents look for when buying a sunscreen for their children?

Sunscreen is the first line of defense against damaging UV rays; however, a trip to the sunscreen aisle can be frustrating because of all the choices for the consumer. First, choose a quality brand of sunscreen offering broad UV protection with an SPF of at least 30. Also, stick to the least irritating sunscreens that contain titanium or zinc- based ingredients designed for sensitive skin. Consider sunscreens with newer technology that extend the time the sunscreen is active on the skin.

2. What is the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?

Sunblock contains physical or inorganic ingredients that reflect and scatter the UVB light and act as a block between your skin and the sun. Sunscreen contains chemicals that protect your skin by absorbing and reflecting UV radiation.

3. Does sunscreen expire?

Yes! It is very important to check the expiration date on the bottle since sunscreens lose their effectiveness after the expiration date.

4. What type of sunscreen should we use if my little one has sensitive skin?

For children with very sensitive skin, we suggest using protective clothing and hats to cover as much of their skin as possible. For the exposed areas, choose a sunblock containing only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as these are the least likely to irritate sensitive skin.

5. Are there any prescription or over-the-counter medications that increase sun sensitivity?

There are multiple medications that can cause sun sensitivity including antibiotics (such as Bactrim, doxycycline, ciprofloxaxin) and pain relievers (such as ibuprofen). You should check your medication labels and ask your pharmacist about the risks of each of your medicines.

6. I have heard that there is a chemical in sunblock that may cause cancer… what is it?

This is a controversial topic. Some animal studies have suggested that high doses of a particular uncommon sunscreen, retinyl palmitate, could have some harmful effects. It is important to note that this does not mean that this ingredient is necessarily harmful for humans. While there is no good evidence to suggest that sunscreens and sunblocks can be harmful to humans, we have ample evidence that supports the use of these products to prevent skin cancer.

7. My mother accidentally lathered up my 4-month-old with sunscreen clearly marked “do not use on children under 6 months old” while we were on vacation at the beach. Should I be concerned about any side effects?

Recent studies suggest that sunscreens are probably safe for any age. Although most products warn against the use of sunscreens for infants less than 6 months of age, the American Academy of Pediatrics now states that sunscreen is probably safe to use on younger children, especially if applying to small areas of your baby’s skin that are not protected by clothing, such as the hands and face. More importantly, younger children should be kept out of direct sunlight because they can burn easily and may not be able to handle getting overheated as well as older children. So even though it is likely safe to use sunscreen on kids less than six months old, it is safer to keep them out of the sun.

8. Is it possible to overdose your child’s skin with too much sunblock?

Not really, however, some ingredients of sunscreens can cause the skin to become more sensitive. If a sunscreen causes redness or irritation, wash it off and stop using that specific type. A very serious allergic reaction to any sunscreen is rare; however, seek immediate medical attention if you notice any symptoms of a serious allergic reaction such as swelling of the tongue and lips or trouble breathing.

9. I always dress my children in the SPF shirts/pants/hats and apply sunblock to their face. Do I still need to lather them up under the clothes?

It is a good idea to also wear sunscreen, because clothing may not block sunlight completely. In fact, an ordinary t-shirt may only be the equivalent of SPF 5. Look for clothing designed to block sun, even up to SPF 50, if you spend a lot of time outdoors. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to vulnerable uncovered areas such as the tops of feet, scalp, ears and neck.

What steps should I take if I think my child has mild sunburn? What if it looks severe?

Soothe the skin by applying cool cloths and using lotions that contain aloe vera or 1% hydrocortisone cream for any sunburned areas. For more severe sunburn, pain relievers such as ibuprofen alternating with acetaminophen may help to decrease the inflammation and swelling of the skin. Seek medical attention immediately for any blistering sunburns or signs of heat exhaustion such as nausea, vomiting or decreased level of consciousness.


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