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When should you use sunscreen on babies?

When should you use sunscreen on babies?

As a parent, you can feel as if you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. Of course you want to do all you can to protect your baby’s skin against UV exposure. But this summer’s stories of babies having bad skin reactions to sunscreens is enough to make anyone pause for thought. So is sunscreen for babies a real issue?

 Why is sunscreen potentially an issue for babies?

Baby skin has something called “immature barrier integrity.” This means that their skin is not quite as good as adult skin as preventing chemicals (such as those in sunscreens) from entering into the body.

“The significant differences…between adult and infant skin suggest a greater susceptibility of infants to…absorption of sunscreens ”
Dr. Amy S. Paller M.D

For those sunscreen chemicals that do penetrate through their skin, babies’ bodies are less able to deal with and break down harmful substances because their immune systems are still rather immature. This becomes even more worrying when you consider that the babies have a higher skin-to-body weight ratio than adults, meaning that any such substances coming through their skin will have a more concentrated effect. And what about allergies?

A baby’s skin is more generally sensitive and can be more susceptible to irritations or allergic reactions from some of the many, many ingredients in sunscreens (not necessarily all listed on the bottle).

All in all, the decision to use sunscreen on babies is not an easy one for us as parents. Luckily there are some official guidelines to help us.

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What are the official recommendations for babies and sunscreen?

Because babies’ skins are more vulnerable, special sun care recommendations apply depending on how old your baby is. What are these recommendations?

Sunscreen for babies under 6 months’ old

On the question of sunscreen for newborns, most recommendations from the relevant bodies recognise that, whilst it isn’t ideal, there are limited circumstances in which sunscreen can be applied. The Cancer Council Australia say that, as long as infants are kept out of the sun or well protected in different ways, then sunscreen need only be used occasionally on very small areas of their skin. Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics also follow this line of thinking by saying that a minimal amount of sunscreen can be used on babies less than 6 months’ old on small areas such as the face or the backs of their hands, only if adequate clothing and shade are not available.

Both Australian and American expert bodies agree that the best sun protection for babies under six months’ old is to mostly keep them out of the direct sunlight. This can be done by sticking to the shade and using physical barriers such as clothing, hats and sun protection covers, to protect their skin.

“Physical protection such as shade, clothing and broad brimmed hats are the best sun protection methods for all children”  
Cancer Council, Australia

Sunscreen for babies 6 months’ old and over.

The Skin Cancer Foundation, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other experts agree that 6 months’ old and over is when you can start to use sunscreen as part of a baby’s sun care routine.  This means you could start to be more liberal in applying it and that you can apply it every day if needed. Does that mean that sunscreen is the best choice for sun protection for babies at this age?

Actually no. The most important thing to remember is that sunscreen at any age should only be the last line of defence – in other words, you should definitely not rely on it as the main or sole method of sun protection. Creating a physical barrier between your baby’s skin and the sun remains the very best way to protect your baby outdoors. This can be done by dressing your baby in long sleeved tops, rashies and long legged pants and using drape covers or lightweight summer blankets.  Covering skin in a good fabric layer is much more likely to be effective against the sun than using sunscreen. Physical barriers such as baby sun shades to cover your pram or baby carrier (or to use as a breastfeeding drape) will also help create a comfortable shade for your baby.

“The first and best line of defence against harmful UV radiation is covering up”
The American Academy of Pediatrics.

And what about how to apply the sunscreen on your baby?   

In our next couple of posts, we’ll consider how to best apply it to be most effective in protecting their delicate skin. We’ll also be looking at the best kinds of sunscreen for your baby to help minimise any skin reactions.

What concerns do you have around sunscreen and babies? Let us know in the comments section.

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