Open Site Navigation

Is there a difference between adult and baby sunscreens?

by Dr. Michael McKelvey

The personal care aisle is full of a dizzying array of sunscreen bottles, cans, and jars with all types of confusing protection claims. I’d like to help sort out a common question that we receive: Is there any difference between adult and baby/children’s sunscreen?

The short answer is no. 

If you care about how your sunscreen smells or like a pastel color scheme, then yes, there is a difference, but otherwise, adult and kids sunscreens use the exact same ingredients. The real question you should ask is how do you best protect your loved ones from the harmful effects of the sun?

Two Main Kinds of Sunscreen

Sunscreens are generally divided into two groups: physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.

  1. What is physical sunscreen? Physical sunscreens, or often called mineral sunscreens, use tiny particles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to reflect harmful ultraviolet light. The majority of sunscreens marketed to kids are in this category, as many perceive a “natural sunblock” as desirable for the more sensitive skin of children. While these sunscreens can be very effective, they tend to be more difficult to rub into the skin, can leave a chalky residue on the skin, and are often less waterproof than their chemical counterparts.

  2. What is a chemical sunscreen? Chemical sunscreens use a variety of compounds to absorb various wavelengths of ultraviolet lights. We know of no difference in safety between the two groups, and chemical sunscreens tend to be easier to spread, offer broader spectrum protection, are available in more convenient preparations, and are more water resistant. The key to protecting children is choosing the sunscreen that is most likely to be used in the correct way. The least effective sunscreen is the one your child won’t put on.

Adult and Baby Sunscreen FAQs:

Should I choose a stick, spray or lotion sunscreen?

Various sunscreen formulations, including lotions, creams, sprays, and sticks can all provide good protection when used properly.

What SPF do I need in a sunscreen?

Make sure you are using a sunscreen with at least an SPF of 30 or above, and look for the label to say “broad spectrum” to make sure you are protecting from both UVA and UVB rays.  If you’d like more of a breakdown of product labels on sunscreen, be sure to read our primer on sunscreen labels!

How much sunscreen should I use on my child?

Depending on your child’s size, between 1-2 oz of sunscreen may be required to cover the entire body. Rub the sunscreen in until there is no white residue on the skin, then wait 10 minutes before getting wet for it to dry to maximize water resistance. 

Can I use spray sunscreen on my kids?

Continuous sprays are a very convenient way to apply sunscreen but you have to be careful as it can be hard to tell if you miss spots and it also can cause respiratory irritation if inhaled. I prefer the sprays for reapplication, as sunscreen can lose a significant amount of protection factor after two hours, which is the recommended time to reapply.  

Other methods of sun protection for babies and kids

It is not recommended to use sunscreen on children under six months old. This is not a safety issue that limits its use, but rather a concern that sunscreen is not going to provide adequate protection to an infant’s very thin and sensitive skin. Shade and protective clothing are preferred for very young babies.  

Sun protective clothing is now widely available for kids and adults. Look for the label to say UPF 30 or higher to know you are getting adequate protection. Don’t forget umbrellas, wide brimmed hats, and sunglasses to augment your protection.  

The bottom line with protecting kids is trying to use a sun protection strategy that is most likely to be properly used and and least likely to induce a tantrum. As a parent, safe and easy is what I am striving for.