Although doctors advise parents to use physical barriers - SPF clothing, umbrellas, and shades - rather than lotions to protect babies younger than 6 months old from dangerous, cancer-causing UVA and UVB rays, babies and kids older than that should get protection from SPF creams as well. The Environmental Working Group (EWG)'s recommendations for the best sunscreens for kids is considered the definitive list of safe options, and according to EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, inactive ingredients like retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) and oxybenzone are the ones that parents need to look out for. "By and large, the [sunscreens] that do well in our database are the ones that are mineral-based products with a higher percent of zinc oxide, as well as some of the products with titanium dioxide," he said.
While parents have been getting the message about switching from chemical sunscreens to mineral versions, one of the group's biggest concerns is how parents are using them. "[Consumers] are looking to buy higher and higher SPF values," Andrews said. "When people use higher SPF values, we're concerned that it leads to a change in behavior and an increased time in the sun and that you apply less of it. Those products may not be as effective in blocking both UVA and UVB radiation. So we steer consumers toward SPF 30 to SPF 50 products and lower, and we really think that is the sweet spot of the products that are available in the marketplace."
So what's a parent to do when trying to choose a safe sunscreen? First, check the EWG's site and app for a list of the safest (and most harmful) options for your family. If you don't have that at your fingertips, Andrews recommends:
- Steering away from SPF products over 50. Your kids' skin won't get anymore protected with SPF 100 than they will with SPF 50.
- Seeking out products that use 3 percent avobenzone if they are chemical sunscreens, or the ones that use zinc oxide as the active ingredient in natural versions. "[They] do the best job of filtering out UVA radiation across the spectrum. Seek out products that use a higher percentage of zinc oxide - typically you'll find 15 to 20 percent, or three percent avobenzone."
- Looking at inactive ingredients on the label. If possible, avoid products that use retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) and avoid products using oxybenzone.
- Avoiding spray sunscreen products. Why skip the convenience of spray lotions? "You don't get a uniform coating on the skin," Andrews says. Plus, "given the concern about the ingredients in these products, we really don't want to coat the inside of our lungs with sunscreen."
Keep scrolling to see 23 of the EWG's top picks for 2020!