Sunscreen and Sun Safety

Sunshine and time spent outdoors are part of a full, active childhood.  Too much sunshine (and sunburns), however, can cause be dangerous for you and your child.

Using sunscreen can help prevent sunburns. Sunburns increase your risk of skin cancer, especially sunburns that happen during childhood and adolescence.

What causes sunburn?

UV radiation reaches earth in UVA and UVB rays:

  • UVA rays (or aging rays) can prematurely age your skin—causing wrinkles and age spots—and can pass through window glass.
  • UVB rays (or burning rays) are the primary cause of sunburn and are blocked by window glass.

Types of sunscreen

There are two different types of sunscreens and they work in different ways.

Chemical sunscreens work by creating a chemical by changing UV rays into heat, then releasing that heat from the skin. They are often referred to as chemical or organic absorbers. Look for the active ingredients of oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate and avobenzone.

Mineral-based sunscreens work by sitting on top of the skin to deflect and scatter damaging UV rays. They are often referred to as physical blockers. Look for the active ingredients oftitanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

Many pediatricians recommend using mineral-based sunscreens for the several reasons:

  • Naturally broad spectrum—offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Mineral-based sunscreens provide protection from the sun as soon as it is applied. You do not have to wait 15-20 minutes as is needed for chemical sunscreens.
  • Mineral-based sunscreens are less likely to cause irritation on the skin, making it better for sensitive skin like baby skin.

What SPF should I get?

SPF refers mainly to the protection of UVB rays. Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. SPF 30 sunscreen blocks 97 percent of the sun's UVB rays. Higher-number SPFs block slightly more of the sun's UVB rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun's UVB rays. Using SPF higher than 30 does not increase protection against UVA rays. It’s better to reapply frequently than get a higher SPF.

How can I protect my child from the sun?

For babies under 6 months old, sun exposure should be avoided to prevent sunburn.

  • Babies should be in the shade when possible and dressed in lightweight pants, long-sleeved t-shirts and wide-brimmed hats to help protect their sensitive skin.  
  • For infants over two months, a small amount of PABA-free sunscreen (Para-Aminobenzoic acid) can be applied. It should be at least SPF 30 and applied to areas that are exposed to the sun. The sunscreen should be washed off when they come inside.
  • Eyes can get sunburned too. Use wide-brimmed hats. Don’t rely solely on sunglasses to protect your baby’s eyes from the sun.

For all other children, sunscreen should be applied if they will be outside for more than 30 minutes, even on cloudy days.

  • The best protection from the harmful effects of sunshine is to avoid sun exposure. Children should be in the shade when possible and limit sun exposure during the middle of the day when the sun rays are the strongest (between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.). 
  • Children should wear hats with a brim large enough to shade the face and neck. They should also wear sunglasses (with 97-100 percent protection against both UVA and UVB rays) to help protect their eyes. Too much sun exposure can cause cataracts and other eye problems over time.
  • On both sunny and cloudy days, children should apply a generous amount of sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going outside. Clouds are not protection from UV rays!
  • Children should use sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Sunscreen should be labeled as “broad spectrum,” meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Sunscreen should be reapplied (even if waterproof) at least every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
  • Children are at an increased risk of sunburn near water, sand or even snow that can cause reflection of UV rays. Use extra caution in these areas.

What should I do if my child has a sunburn?

  • If your child has a sunburn, make sure they stay well-hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids. Your child should avoid sun exposure until their sunburn is healed.
  • Cool water (i.e. a cool bath or cool compress) or aloe vera gel can help improve symptoms.
  • For babies younger than six months, acetaminophen can be used to help with pain.
  • For babies older than six months, acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used.
  • Call the doctor if your baby is less than 1 year old and has a sunburn.
  • For older children, call the doctor if your child has blistering, significant pain or fever.

Additional resources:


Edited by Shannon Taut, MD and Sara Laule, MD
Updated April 2018