If you've just had a baby, chances are you turn to Google for every question, concern, and random thought that's keeping you awake in the middle of the night. We get it—babies, as sweet and harmless as they are, are equally scary and intimidating. Once you become a new parent, even the simplest tasks that you never thought twice about before, like applying sunscreen, suddenly require the use of all your lifelines. But before you phone a friend, ask the audience, or resort to a 50/50 guess, read this expert advice on baby sunscreen from board-certified dermatologists Hadley King, MD, and Lian Mack, MD, medical director of GlamDerm. Ahead, the complete guide to using sunscreen on babies and infants, from when to start using it to the safest ingredients and formulas to try on your precious little babe.
When to Start Applying Sunscreen on a Baby
The first question on any new parent's mind, and arguably the biggest question, is when does a baby need to start wearing sunscreen. While your natural instinct to protect your newborn baby from the sun is valid, both dermatologists we spoke to recommend other measures of sun protection, like wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeve shirts, and pants with a protective factor, for the first six months. "Sunscreen use should be minimized for infants younger than 6 months old because their sensitive skin can become irritated and because there are concerns about absorption," King explains.
Mack also points out that the risk of an allergy is another factor to consider and reason to use other forms of sun protection instead of sunscreen during early infancy. "Babies, when they’re born, their skin is adjusting to the environment, and so they tend to get rashes regularly during infancy," Mack explains. "So the concern might be that using a topical like a sunscreen may cause or trigger an allergy, and it may be unclear as to whether or not this is just a rash in infancy vs. an allergic reaction to a sunscreen."
If you're in a situation where you're outside and aren't prepared with the proper clothing and don't have access to shade, both dermatologists would then suggest using a physical sunscreen, which are sunscreens that contain physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, with an SPF of 30 or greater. "We know these physical blockers are safe in younger children because, essentially, they’re reflecting the light off of the skin as opposed to a chemical sunscreen that has ingredients like avobenzone or oxybenzone," says Mack. "We know that those chemical ingredients absorb the sun and convert it to heat in the skin, so it’s unclear to us as dermatologists the ramifications of using these chemicals on a baby or an infant."
How Much Sunscreen to Apply and How Often
Once your baby is over 6 months of age, both dermatologists recommend using physical or mineral sunscreen. A shot glass full of sunscreen (approximately 1 ounce) is typically recommended for an adult, but since the body surface area of a baby is much smaller, King recommends half of a shot glass or a generous amount to all of the exposed areas. But don't wait until you're outside to break out the sunscreen bottle. Mack says the ideal time to apply sunscreen is 15 to 20 minutes before sun exposure so that it has time to settle into the skin. It's generally recommended to reapply the sunscreen between every hour to two hours, but King adds that it's a good idea to reapply after any swimming or sweating as well because, unfortunately, there's no such thing as waterproof sunscreen.
How Long Can a Baby Safely Be in Direct Sunlight?
With protective clothing or sunscreen, a baby can be in the sun for up to two hours before needing another application of sunblock, but King says a baby should not be exposed to direct sunlight without any sun protection at all. "Keep the baby in the shade as much as possible, and if there isn't shade available, create your own using an umbrella, canopy, or the hood of a stroller," King advises, adding that it is best to avoid peak UV hours (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and consider the UV index. In addition to sunlight, it's also important to be conscious of the temperature and humidity because infants can become overheated easily, and you'll need to make sure they're staying hydrated.
What to Do If Your Baby Gets a Sunburn
The best way to approach a sunburn depends on the severity of the burn. For a little bit of redness and tenderness, Mack suggests applying something like aloe vera to soothe the skin and a cool bath to calm the inflammation. But he recommends topical cortisone for a more intense sunburn. "Even something like an over-the-counter hydrocortisone ointment would be OK to use on a baby’s skin for a very short duration of time," Mack says.
Safest Sunscreen Ingredients for a Baby
Traditional chemical sunscreen ingredients aren't the only ingredients that should be avoided in your baby's sunscreen; you've got a few more red flags to look out for when scanning the bottle's label. Number one: fragrance. Mack explains, "They’ve been in the womb for 10 months, and they’re becoming exposed to so many things in their environment. So you want to minimize the risk of allergic contact dermatitis by not exposing them to things like fragrance." With that in mind, Mack adds that it's also best to avoid harsh preservatives.
As for the vehicle, Mack argues that despite their convenience and ease, a spray sunscreen doesn't provide the best coverage. For that reason, Mack suggests using a lotion on the body and a stick for the face to allow for more control.
The Safest Baby Sunscreens
King recommends this formula, which only relies on zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and no traditional chemical sunscreen ingredients, parabens, or fragrance. As if that wasn't reason enough to love this sunscreen, King also points to the packaging as part of what makes this a top pick. UV light transforms the bottle color from white to pink as a reminder that it's time to reapply sunscreen.
Also a fan of the clever color-changing bottle that indicates exposure to harmful UV light, Mack recommends Blue Lizard sunscreen and likes this sensitive-skin formula for applying to the baby's body.
For an extra-gentle option, King suggests picking up a bottle of this sunscreen, which only contains zinc oxide and also uses oat extract to moisturize and soothe sensitive skin.
Another great option for sensitive skin, this mineral sunscreen is full of zinc oxide, free of fragrance, and even formulated to be tear-free, which is why it's one of King's favorites.
If you're looking for a stick option to avoid the possibility of the sunscreen running to the child's eyes altogether, Mack likes this sheer zinc oxide stick from Neutrogena that's fragrance-, dye-, and paraben-free.
Mack says even physical sunscreens not marketed specifically for use on babies could work, as long as the formula is also fragrance-free and paraben-free. Mack recommends SkinBetter Science Sunbutter Sheer SPF 56 Sunscreen Stick ($45), which is available through authorized physicians, but we also love this broad-spectrum, reef-safe, and cruelty-free formula by EleVen. This sheer sunscreen contains 25% zinc oxide and was developed for people of all skin shades and types.