We recently received an inquiry asking us why we say our sunscreen is baby-safe when sunscreen isn’t recommended for babies under 6 months old. It’s a good question! And, with skin cancer on the rise, we felt it was important to help all parents in our community better understand infant sun safety.
Why babies are more vulnerable
Infants are at higher risk of UV damage and skin cancer because their skin is thinner and has lower melanin concentrations than an adult’s skin. According to the article UV protection and sunscreens: What to tell patients, what this means is that “UV penetrates more deeply into skin that is less able to absorb UV radiation.” The doctors who authored the article go on to say, “Animal studies suggest that the skin of children, especially infants, is immunologically immature and less able to respond to UV damage than adult skin. Therefore, extra care must be taken to protect children from UV exposure.”
The latest skin safety recommendations
Previously, the “extra care” recommendation was to keep babies under 6 months of age out of direct sun and covered by protective clothing. Sunscreen was not recommended at all for babies this young. But in the past few years, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has modified that recommendation. Now they say:
For babies younger than 6 months. Use sunscreen on small areas of the body, such as the face and the backs of the hands, if protective clothing and shade are not available.
Keeping babies out of the sun is still the safest way to protect their delicate, vulnerable skin from the harmful rays of the sun. That’s a fact. But public health officials now recognize that’s not always a possibility and that the safety of shade is relative to the situation. Consider this, even sitting in the shade of an umbrella at the beach cannot entirely protect you from UV rays. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Surfaces like snow, sand, pavement, and water reflect much of the UV radiation that reaches them. Because of this reflection, UV intensity can be deceptively high even in shaded areas.”
At those times, protective clothing can help close the gap and increase skin protection. But there’s inevitably still a little bit of skin exposed (e.g., face, hands, ears)—and that’s when a little bit of sunscreen might be necessary. When that’s the case, the consensus is generally that a broad-spectrum sunscreen made from physical barriers such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the most effective and safest for baby’s sensitive skin.
Why physical barriers are better
In sun protection, there are two categories of active ingredients: chemical absorbers and physical barriers. Chemical absorbers, such as benzophenone, oxybenzone, and octocrylene, work by absorbing UV radiation before it affects or damages the skin. However, these ingredients are increasingly being linked to negative health impacts. (For example, benzophenone was recently added to California’s Prop 65 list as known to cause cancer, octocrylene is a “strong allergen linked to contact dermatitis in children,” and oxybenzone is a known contact allergen with links to endometriosis.)
The second category of active ingredients in sun protection is physical blockers, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. When the sun hits these blockers it is reflected and bounces away from the skin (versus getting absorbed). These ingredients (unless they’ve been nano-sized – which ours have not been) are natural, generally not absorbed by the skin, and are far gentler on both our skin and the environment.
Additional sun safety tips for infants
The FDA recommends keeping the following in mind this summer when outside with infants:
Keep your baby in the shade as much as possible. If you do use a small amount of sunscreen on your baby, don’t assume the child is well protected.
Make sure your child wears clothing that covers and protects sensitive skin. Use common sense; if you hold the fabric against your hand and it’s so sheer that you can see through it, it probably doesn’t offer enough protection.
Make sure your baby wears a hat that provides sufficient shade at all times.
Watch your baby carefully to make sure he or she doesn’t show warning signs of sunburn or dehydration. These include fussiness, redness, and excessive crying.
Hydrate! Give your baby formula, breast milk, or a small amount of water between feedings if you’re out in the sun for more than a few minutes. Don’t forget to use a cooler to store the liquids.
Take note of how much your baby is urinating. If it’s less than usual, it may be a sign of dehydration, and that more fluids are needed until the flow is back to normal.
If you do notice your baby is becoming sunburned, get out of the sun right away and apply cold compresses to the affected areas.
NOTE: Please consult your family health provider with any concerns about sun safety and using sunscreens on your children. The information in this blog post should not replace professional medical advice.