Sunscreen for babies: What to use and when to start applying

By The Health News Team | June 9, 2022
Baby with sunscreen on face

Summer in San Diego means beach outings, barbecues, lazy days by the pool and plenty of sunshine. While enjoying the outdoors, it’s important to remember that the sun’s rays can be harmful — especially for babies.

Infants and babies are more vulnerable to the damaging effects of the sun because they haven’t yet developed all of the melanin in their skin. Melanin is a natural substance that gives color (pigment) to hair, skin and the iris of the eye. It also helps protect skin from the sun. Practicing sun safety will help protect your little one’s oh-so-soft and sensitive skin.

Sunscreen is a primary sun-safety tool, and one of the best defenses against sunburn and skin cancer. But what do parents need to know about sunscreen for their babies? Here, we answer common sunscreen questions and provide tips for a safe summer in the sun.

When can babies wear sunscreen?
Sunscreen can help shield a baby’s skin from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays. But before you start slathering, consider your baby’s age. Sunscreen recommendations are different for younger and older babies.

Dr. Teresa Hardisty, a pediatrician with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, regularly advocates people should spend more time in nature. But she says the safest sun protection for infants is to stay in the shade. “It’s best to keep babies less than 6 months of age out of prolonged, direct sunlight,” she says.

Additionally, Dr. Hardisty notes that due to their sensitive skin, it’s recommended to wait until a baby is at least 6 months old before introducing sunscreen. For babies older than 6 months, you can apply sunscreen to all areas of the body. But remember to be careful around the eyes.

What sunscreen is best for babies?
When choosing a sunscreen, Dr. Hardisty recommends a hypoallergenic, fragrance-free cream formula. It’s the gentlest option for babies and is less likely to cause irritation. For sensitive areas, such as the nose, cheeks, tops of the ears and shoulders, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests choosing a mineral sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Be sure to choose a sunscreen that says “broad-spectrum” on the label. This indicates the sunscreen will block both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. A sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 is best and should be applied 15 to 20 minutes before going outdoors to allow enough time to absorb into the skin.

Allergic reactions to sunscreen are rare. However, it’s recommended you apply a small patch test on your baby’s skin first to check for any signs of irritation.

How else can I protect my baby from the sun?
“In addition to sunscreen, wide-brimmed hats and sun-protective clothing are best for prolonged time in the sun,” Dr. Hardisty says.

When possible, she also advises people avoid scheduling outdoor activities between 10 am and 4 pm — the hours when the sun is at its strongest and UV rays are more intense.

To get an idea of how strong the sun’s rays are on any given day, check the UV index in your area. You can find this measurement on many weather apps or by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Sun Safety page and entering your city or ZIP code.

The UV index is measured on a scale from 1 to 11-plus. The higher the number, the greater the risk of sunburn or skin damage. Try to reduce your child’s time in the sun when the UV index is 3 or higher and use extra sun protection.

As parents make their summer plans, Dr. Hardisty advises they keep their little ones safe from too much sun exposure. Protection from the sun is important at all stages of life, she says, but it’s even more crucial for infants and babies.

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