Do kids and adults really need different sunscreens? An expert weighs in | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 18, 2024

Sunscreen is an essential component of our daily skincare routine, but many parents are curious about whether they need to buy different sunscreens for their children. For a better understanding, a board-certified dermatologist shares some advice.

Meet the expert

Dr. Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, is a well-known dermatologic surgeon at Shafer Clinic Fifth Avenue in New York City. Dr. Engelman has an exceptional educational history, including a B.S. from the Medical University of South Carolina and specialized training in dermatology and Mohs surgery. She provides essential knowledge in both medical and cosmetic dermatology.

So, do you really need separate sunscreens for children and adults?

“You absolutely do not need to buy separate formulas for different members of the family. In fact, I often tell my patients to buy the baby versions for their personal use,” reveals Dr. Engelman.

What’s the distinction between children’s and adult sunscreen?

In essence, there is very little difference. Most “kids'” or baby sunscreens are physical (mineral) sunscreens, which are less likely to irritate. This makes them appropriate for adults with delicate or sensitive skin as well.

Physical vs. chemical 

The fundamental difference between chemical and physical sunscreens is their mode of action. Chemical sunscreens soak into the skin, whereas physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and block UV radiation. Both types have their benefits and drawbacks. Adults frequently choose based on personal preference, unless they have severe skin allergies or ingredient concerns. Physical sunscreens for children are commonly advised.

Protecting children

The best protection for youngsters is to limit their sun exposure, especially during peak hours. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, newborns under the age of six months should be kept completely out of the sunlight, while older children should avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Concerns with chemical sunscreens for children

Children’s skin is thinner and more absorbent, making it more sensitive to irritation from chemical sunscreens. Dr. Engelman recommends applying physical sunscreens for children to be extra safe. These formulations, which contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, sit on the skin’s surface, deflecting UV radiation rather than absorbing it.

Can children use adult sunscreen?

Dr. Engelman says yes, but only if the formula is mineral or physical. “You want something that’s formulated with either zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of the two.” She suggests that the sunscreen provides broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) protection with an SPF of at least 30.

Can adults use children’s sunscreen?

Absolutely. In fact, Dr. Engelman frequently suggests that adults use children’s or baby sunscreens, which are typically intended to be kinder and less irritating.

Children’s sunscreen safety guidelines

Not all children’s sunscreens follow the specified safety requirements. Some include chemical blockers such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octinoxate. The FDA now considers only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to be generally safe and effective (GRASE). Parents should seek for these substances when purchasing sunscreen for their children.

The FDA has approved three types of sunscreens:
1. Physical (mineral) sunscreens: Active chemicals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide reflect UV radiation.
2. Chemical sunscreens: Active chemicals such as avobenzone and oxybenzone absorb UV radiation.
3. Combination sunscreens include both physical and chemical UV filters.

Currently, the FDA only recognizes zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as GRASE. They recommend applying broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or greater, as well as taking additional precautions such as wearing UPF clothing, sunglasses, and hats and seeking shade during peak sunshine hours.

Final thoughts

There is no significant difference between child and adult sunscreens. The trick is to examine the ingredients. Whether for children or adults, choose sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and ensure they provide broad-spectrum protection with at least SPF 30. Regular reapplication, particularly when spending time outside, is critical for optimal sun protection.


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