Sunscreen for Kids: Should You Go Natural?

Parents often wonder if sunscreen is safe for kids and one of the latest trends seems to be toward “natural” sunscreens. But are they any better?

Sunscreen for Kids: Should You Go Natural?

Photography courtesy Amir Krone via Flickr.

We previously covered the basics of sunscreen, but how do natural sunscreens differ from traditional ones?

There are two types of sunscreen: chemical, which absorbs UV radiation and transforms it into heat, and physical (natural sunscreens fall in this category), which uses preparations like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to reflect UV radiation. Whether a sunscreen is described as “natural” or not, sunscreen by definition has at least some chemicals.

What Sunscreen to Use for Kids
Sunscreen is safe to use on kids older than six months, and there are three considerations to make in choosing one, regardless of whether it’s natural or not, says Dr. Anatali Freiman, Dermatologist, Medical Director of the Toronto Dermatology Centre, and Chair of the Canadian Dermatology Association’s (CDA’s) Sun Protection Program.

Look for a sunscreen with at least SPF 30. This refers to the Sun Protection Factor, and the effectiveness of a sunscreen to protect against UVB rays. Some believe that SPF 15 and up will suffice, but Dr. Freiman advises that since most people don’t use enough, SPF 30 and higher helps ensure a larger margin of safety.

Look for one that’s broad spectrum. This adds protection against UVA rays as well as UVB. Without broad spectrum on the label, kids are still susceptible to these other types of harmful rays.

Look for the CDA logo. The Canadian Dermatology Association puts sunscreens through rigorous scientific tests, and labels those that have passed standards for safety and efficacy with its stamp of approval. You can see its list of approved sunscreens here, which includes some labeled as natural and mineral.

Natural vs. Traditional
There’s a misconception that sunscreens labeled as “natural” are better for kids, says Dr. Freiman. “We don’t want people to be tricked into thinking that natural means more safe and effective, as that’s not the case.”

While these types of sunscreen typically rely more on blockers, and potentially have fewer ingredients and fewer chemicals, he notes that they can also result in more allergies due to things like botanical extracts or other natural substances. Poison ivy, he points out, is natural, but also a very strong allergenic compound. That said, groups like the Environmental Working Group in the U.S. scores various chemical (and natural) sunscreens based on their supposed level of hazard. But Dr. Freiman says the scoring isn’t backed up by scientific testing.

If your kids have sensitive skin, look for sunscreens that are non-comedogenic as well, which means they won’t block pores, and they’re non-irritating and hypoallergenic. Also avoid perfumes, whether it’s a natural or traditional sunscreen, which can serve as an irritant.

How Do You Know If It’s An Allergy?
A child may break out after you apply sunscreen, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an allergic reaction to the sunscreen. Kids can have general allergies to the sun, or might sweat excessively, resulting in heat rash. If your child repeatedly breaks out with sun exposure, see an expert who can evaluate the situation.

Other Sun Protection Tips
The most obvious way to minimize your child’s exposure to the sun is to keep him indoors, or at least in the shade, during peak sun hours (from 10 or 11 a.m.-3 p.m.) But let’s be realistic: who wants to stay home all day?

Wide-brimmed hats, sun-protected clothing and strollers, and sunglasses (if the child will wear them) are all important. You can opt for clothing that has UPF labeling for sun protection, but often times, a simple T-shirt will suffice, and light-coloured clothing may work a little better in reflecting the sun.

Bottom Line
“Natural” sunscreens aren’t any safer nor more effective than traditional sunscreen. Opting for a natural sunscreen is a personal choice, and if you do prefer to go that route (as many parents seem to these days,) just keep in mind that SPF levels and broad spectrum labeling is what will determine efficacy. Once you’ve covered these bases, lather up the kids, and enjoy some fun in the sun.

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