Because baby skin is generally more sensitive than adult skin, the choice of sunscreen for your baby is one that will be important for you as a parent. In particular, some parents worry whether sunscreen chemicals can either irritate baby skin, or penetrate it and cause health issues. So what factors should you consider when buying a sunscreen for babies?
What to look for in a baby sunscreen?
As baby skin is quite delicate, it’s best to choose a sunscreen that is marked as (i) having broad spectrum protection (meaning it will guard against both UVA and UVB rays); (ii) having a minimum SPF of 30; and (iii) being specially designed for babies. So, isn’t that sufficient for parents to rely on?
Perhaps not. Baby sunscreens, like adult ones, contain “active” ingredients which are the ones that are responsible for countering UV rays. As well as those active ingredients, sunscreens usually have so-called “inactive” ingredients such as preservatives to help the sunscreen last longer or fragrances for a nice smelling cream. As with all baby skin care products, the best thing is to choose sunscreens which have a minimum amount of these types of potentially irritating, inactive ingredients. This will reduce the likelihood your baby having a reaction against these perfumes and preservatives. What else do you need to look out for?
Surprisingly, sunscreen manufacturers are not legally obliged to need to disclose all the inactive ingredients that they use because their particular sunscreen recipe is seen to be a commercial secret
As well as being vigilant about what’s on the ingredients list, it pays to be aware of what might not be disclosed. Surprisingly, sunscreen manufacturers are not legally obliged to need to disclose all the inactive ingredients that they use because their particular sunscreen recipe is seen to be a commercial secret. This doesn’t really help us parents, though, so do check whether a sunscreen manufacturer is happy to be upfront about the whole of their ingredients list. Although it’s a pain to do so, emailing a manufacturer and asking is the most direct way of finding out (here at musluv, we list the ingredients of the sunscreens we sell).
As well as active and inactive ingredients, another thing to check is whether the sunscreen contains physical active ingredients or chemical active ingredients.
Wait, what? What on earth are physical and chemical sunscreen ingredients?
Physical sunscreens are those where the ingredients responsible for blocking the UV rays do this by mostly absorbing UV rays. They also reflect some UV rays away from the skin, like a mirror. The most common of this type of ingredient are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Chemical sunscreens on the other hand have active ingredients which just absorb the UV rays. Some of these ingredients (often with long, complicated names) are known carcinogens and others are hormone disruptors; they’re pretty serious ingredients which is why experts recommend limiting their use on babies.
It is usually a good idea to choose a physical sunscreen for your baby over a chemical one.
Luckily these are widely available. They are usually the kindest on baby skin, but you may need to experiment with your own baby by doing a patch test. If they react against it, choose another brand.
"Because the young babies absorb more of any chemical applied to the skin than adults, the widespread regular use of chemical sunscreens is not recommended"
The Australasian College of Dermatologists
But isn’t there an issue around the safety of nanoparticles in physical sunscreens?
The only real problem with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is that they can sit on top of the skin and lead to a rather ghostly appearance. To get around this issue, manufacturers have created nanoparticle sunscreens (with super tiny particles of sunscreen which sink into the skin more easily).
Some people have been worried that these particles are now so tiny that they can cross the skin’s barrier to the living tissues below and wreak havoc there by releasing free radicals, and ironically increase the chance of cancer.
There are a number of studies which have been done, which suggest that the amount of nanoparticles crossing through the skin barrier is minimal, and those than do cross over can be adequately dealt with by the body’s own defence systems. But all of the studies to have been done on adult skin, which is thicker and a good barrier. What about the safety on baby skin?
Unfortunately...no studies to date have been done which take into consideration a baby’s thinner, more permeable skin...so no one is really sure whether this is just a theoretical risk or a real one.
Unfortunately, as far as we are aware, no studies to date have been done which take into consideration a baby’s thinner, more permeable skin. If nanoparticles do cross a baby’s skin barrier, it is likely that there will have a more concentrated effect on them because they have a greater skin-to-bodyweight ratio and their defence systems (responsible for getting rid of such toxins in the body) are still immature.
At the end of the day, there is not a whole heap of data on this, so no one is really sure whether this is just a theoretical risk or a real one. The decision to use a nanoparticle sunscreen comes down to personal preference for each parent. Whilst some parents won’t mind a visibly whitened appearance, others will take comfort from the fact that no data has ever been produced to show long or short term health consequences from using sunscreens on babies.
If you do prefer a non-nanoparticle sunscreen for your baby, there are a some on the market. Just make sure you look for a label stating that there are no nanoparticles in it, as sunscreens which contain nanoparticles don’t need to be labelled as such.
What about spray sunscreens? They seem like a pretty convenient family option.
Spray sunscreens are generally not a good choice for anyone. They don’t provide a good enough coverage, they may not disperse well (with the active ingredients staying in the bottom of the bottle) and have been connected with inhalation risks. Breathing in is a much quicker route for chemicals coming into your baby’s body than through their skin.
If you are going to use spray sunscreen, then spray it onto your hands and rub between your palms before applying to your baby’s skin.
So, should we worry about using sunscreen on babies?
If you pick your baby’s sunscreen armed with the knowledge in this in this blog post, and our previous articles on when to use sunscreen on babies and how to apply it effectively, you shouldn’t feel unduly worried in using sunscreen on your baby. Sunscreen certainly has its place in protecting babies against UV rays, as long as it is not used as the main or only way to protect them.
Whilst there are undoubtedly areas of concern around some types of sunscreen, there’s not a lot of actual data which shows it to be harmful to babies. There is however, plenty of evidence to show that a lot of sun exposure for babies is harmful, so if the choice is ever between using sunscreen or leaving your baby unprotected against UV rays, then using a sunscreen is definitely the better choice.
What kinds of things do you look at when buying sunscreen for your baby?
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