We Ask a Dermatologist: What’s the Difference Between Child and Adult Sunscreen?

Sunscreen is a must, but is having a separate sunscreen for kids really necessary? We asked a board-certified dermatologist for some clarification ahead.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologic surgeon at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue in New York City. Dendy attended Wofford College and received a B.S. from the Medical University of South Carolina. She completed her residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in Dermatology and her Mohs fellowship at the Medical University of South Carolina. She is a Mohs surgeon and media expert who specializes in medical and cosmetic dermatology, and has recently served as the Director of Dermatologic Surgery at New York Medical College, where she trained future Mohs surgeons and dermatologists.

First, Do We Need to Buy a Separate Sunscreen for Kids?

“You absolutely do not need to buy separate formulas for different members of the family. In fact, I often tell my patients to buy the baby versions for their personal use.”

Is There Any Difference Between “Kid” And “Adult” Sunscreen?

In a nutshell: No. Though many “kids’” sunscreens tend to be mineral-based because they’re less likely to cause irritation.

What's the Difference Between a Physical and Chemical Sunscreen?

The biggest difference between chemical vs. physical (aka mineral) sunscreen is how it lays on your skin—chemical absorbs, while physical sits on top. Both have their pros and cons, but barring any skin sensitivities or ingredient preferences, as an adult, it usually comes down to what you like. For kids, however, physical/mineral sunscreens are often recommended.

On that note, the best form of protection for your little one is limiting their time in the sun, especially during peak hours. Per the American Academy of Pediatrics, infants younger than six months should be kept out of the sun entirely and older children should limit direct sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m and 4 p.m.

What Might Happen If a Child Uses a Chemical Sunscreen?

Their skin might get irritated. Kids have thinner, more absorbent skin, which is why Dr. Engelman (and many of her peers) recommends a physical formula (which sits on top of skin to deflect UV rays) over a chemical one (which is absorbed into the skin) to be extra safe.

Can a Child Use “Adult” Sunscreen?

Yes, but only if it’s a mineral or physical formula, says Engelman. “You want something that’s formulated with either zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or a combination of the two,” she explains. So, look for those two ingredients and make sure that it offers broad spectrum (or UVA/UVB) protection of at least 30. Some of our favorite adult brands that are totally safe to use on children include Alba Botanica Sensitive Fragrance Free Mineral Sunscreen ($10) and Cetaphil Sheer 100% Mineral Liquid Sunscreen ($11).

Do All “Children’s” Sunscreens Adhere to These Recommendations?

Unfortunately, no. There are children’s sunscreens out there that contain chemical blockers like avobenzone, oxybenzone and octinoxate. And though the FDA is still in the process of updating its regulations for sunscreen safety, for now, the only two ingredients that have been deemed safe are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Some solid kid-marketed suggestions: Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+ ($23) and All Good Kid’s Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 ($30).

Bottom Line:

Study the ingredient label on a bottle and you'll find that there's no real difference between kid and adult sunscreen. Instead of looking strictly for sunscreens that are marketed towards kids, make sure to also take a closer look at the ingredients (as outlined above) and consistently reapply it (every two hours if you or your kid is outdoors).

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