There’s No Difference Between Baby and Adult Sunscreen

It’s a scorcher of a summer day, and all you want to do is smear some sunscreen on your kid before they wriggle out of your grasp. Good thing you have this baby sunscreen, right? Because it’s easier to apply, or kids like it more, or… something?

Not really. Many baby and kid sunscreens are just regular sunscreens gussied up with sweet-smelling scents or pastel packaging.

Sunscreens approved for sale in the US fall into three categories:

  • Physical (aka mineral) sunscreens contain active ingredients that reflect the sun’s rays.
  • Chemical sunscreens contain active ingredients that absorb the sun’s rays so your skin doesn’t.
  • Combination sunscreens include both physical and chemical active-ingredients to keep you protected.

You may notice that baby and kid sunscreens aren’t on that list. While the FDA regulates claims on sunscreen labels related to SPF, broad-spectrum protection, and water resistance, it does not regulate marketing terms like “baby” and “kid”—though most formulations for children are physical sunscreens.

In our guide to the best sunscreens, for example, we note that our favorite reef-safe sunscreen, Thinksport SPF 50+, is sold three different ways—for babies, kids, and adults—but that “they are all the same, fragrance and branding aside.” However, that doesn’t mean that baby or kid sunscreens aren’t worth buying, particularly if you (or your baby or kid) prefer the way they feel and smell.

Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50+

This physical sunscreen lotion absorbs easily and is free of added fragrance. While this water-resistant formula can—like most physical sunscreens—feel greasy and leave behind a white cast (especially on darker skin), we’ve found its dependable coverage worth the trade-off.

Thinksport SPF 50+ Sunscreen

This physical sunscreen lotion is formulated with non-nano zinc oxide, an active ingredient known to be safer for marine life. But it doesn’t rub in quite as easily as our top-pick physical formula from Blue Lizard. It also contains added fragrance and appears chalkier on skin.

How to protect your kids from sun damage

Avoid spending extended periods of time in the sun when possible

As we note in our story on how to apply sunscreen, seeking out shade (or creating your own through the use of sun hats, sunglasses, rash guards, and more) is the best first-line of defense against sun exposure or damage. The American Academy of Pediatrics says infants younger than 6 months should be kept out of the sun entirely. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that babies older than 6 months and toddlers are protected from direct sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m and 4 p.m.

Look for broad-spectrum sunscreen

Broad spectrum means the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreens labeled SPF 30 or higher. (All of our picks meet these basic criteria.)

Pick a sunscreen that your kid will tolerate having slathered on them

If you prefer a physical sunscreen, our testers found that Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50+ applies more easily than most other physical sunscreens, thanks to its runnier texture. Coppertone Ultra Guard SPF 70, a chemical sunscreen, is a more affordable option that rubs in even more easily and is less visible on nearly every skin tone.

Continuous-spray sunscreens are often considered the easiest to apply; however, we no longer test them because it’s near-impossible to measure how much you’ve applied. Plus, dermatologists we spoke to told us they can pose health risks if the aerosolized particles are inhaled. (As one dermatologist put it in our sunscreen guide, “If you can smell your spray sunscreen, you’re inhaling it.”) Experts advise against using sunscreens that contain bug repellent, which may reduce the sunscreen’s effectiveness.

The least effective sunscreen, of course, is one your child simply doesn’t put on. So if winning the war against sun damage means losing the battle between a crabby kid and your preferred sunscreen, swap it out for one they like better. (Hey, nobody said parenting was easy.)

This article was edited by Annemarie Conte and Tracy Vence.