Should babies under 6 months be in the sun at all? Should all the same rules apply to sunscreening their soft baby flesh like we do older children?
When I was a mother of one child nine years ago, the summer that he was 13-17 months, he got breakfast, clothing, and (chemical) sunscreen every morning. I cringe at the thought now that I know how sunscreen works, especially when applied so early before even getting into the sun (and we had a very shady yard! Ugh!).
How times have changed.
When baby number three was born in mid-August three years ago, we purposely took him outside to “lay out” in the sunshine without clothing on for about 10-15 minutes at a time to help get his mild jaundice out. With my big kids nowadays, we value a little sun and only use sunscreen when the duration and timing of their sun exposure calls for it (over 30 minutes, between 11a-3p or so).
I wouldn’t really bother with sunscreen for an infant – but if I couldn’t keep that baby skin out of the midday sun for whatever reason, maybe a boating trip, I’d like to know what my options are, since almost all sunscreen (definitely all chemical sunscreen) states on the bottle that it’s not meant for children under six months old.
What that really means is that the ingredients haven’t been tested on babies, since doing research on babies is pretty frowned upon.
I wouldn’t let any of those chemical sunscreens touch any of my babies’ skin, even when those “babies” are teenagers.
So what is safe for infants under 6 months short of keeping them shaded 90% of the time?
A Moment of Clarity
When our family was testing 25+ natural sunscreens a few summers ago for this massive natural sunscreen review, I had so many that seemed “fine” that I wasn’t sure how I’d ever write up the post recommending a few at the top of the list. (We’ve now tested over 40 brands, by the way – right here if you want to check it out.)
I finally had an “aha!” moment in the midst of all the bottles and tubes of lotion when my cousin asked me if I had one that she could put on her then 3-month-old son for a trip around the lake on a boat (a good example of not really being able to avoid sun exposure).
Within seconds of pondering, it was clear to me that there were only two I would choose for an infant.
The active ingredient had to be zinc oxide, of course. Most of the ‘screens we were testing used either zinc or titanium dioxide as their active ingredients, and many relied on a mix of the two. Zinc oxide is the only one that has been tested to be safe on infants, however – it’s the same thing that makes most diaper creams both white and effective.
At the time, Melansol and Kabana were the only two brands that fit the bill, and Kabana had fewer and cleaner ingredients (plus the eucalyptus oil in the Melansol gave my aunt a wheezing attack, quickly X-ing it off my short list!). I gave her our tube of Kabana and told her to keep it, and ever since, Kabana has remained my top choice.
Zinc Oxide Only Options
In the years since 2010, many other brands have formulated using only zinc oxide, so the options are a bit wider now.
If you’re wondering whether a tube of sunscreen in your home would be safe for tiny babes, here are some recommendations to assess:
- The only active ingredient should be zinc oxide.
- The “other ingredients” should be things you recognize, not strange, long chemical names and especially not parabens.
- There should be some antioxidants, the more the better: carrot oil, Vitamin E, green tea, sunflower oil, shea butter, and more.
- Essential oils can be tricky for infants safety-wise, so I’d actually recommend none of those, just to be on the safe side.
- The zinc oxide needs to be NON NANO and UNCOATED. See more below.
Zinc Oxide = Free Radicals??? You’re Kidding Me!
I was visibly upset when I read an email newsletter this spring about the dangers of sunscreen and health benefits of sunshine. I agree with all that – but this company was saying that even mineral sunscreens are dangerous, and made this claim, without citation:
Research shows that zinc oxide sunscreens “potentially generate free radicals upon sun exposure.”
That’s what I have been saying about chemical sunscreens for years but I hadn’t heard it about zinc, and I was ticked off. A little more digging (thankfully) eased my mind.
The citation should have been from Dr. Yinfa Ma’s 2009 research out of Missouri S&T, which did find exactly those results.
However – the research was not on just any zinc oxide, but only studied nano particles of zinc, examined on lung tissue (how often do your lungs see the sun?), and the cells used were not in a human but in a petri dish (in vitro).
The results of the study are startling and important, and more research needs to be done – hopefully on skin cells, please, and in vivo (in a human being) as soon as possible. There’s simply not enough research on “coated” zinc oxide for me to use it on an infant.
For now, even Dr. Ma recommends continuing to use sunscreen while also trying to avoid the sun when possible. A 2010 study in the Journal of Photochemical and Photobiological Sciences stated that “based on data from internationally-recognized guideline studies and current 20+ year history of human use is that nano-structured titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are safe,” and that the “risk for humans…is considered negligible.”
Some even conjecture that not only are nano particles not harmful, but they may in fact may provide better coverage and therefore protection from the sun.
The good news is that the 2010 human safety review also states that even nano zinc doesn’t really penetrate the skin more than normally sized zinc particles, so that’s one of the reasons for which I used to avoid nano particles off the table.
Don’t you love how you can find credible sources for every side of every issue?
In this case, for an infant in particular but also for my own family, I’m choosing to stick with non-nano, non-coated zinc oxide sunscreens. I’d rather lean toward what has been used for a longer time and more tested rather than the “new and probably not harmful” formulations with the smaller particles. We may not know what we don’t know, you know?
Here are the ones I have reviewed the currently fit the bill:
- Kabana, found online, at Amazon, or at Whole Foods
- Badger Balm baby, kids or the face stick, found at Vitacost, Badger online, various stores including H-E-B, Wegman’s, and Whole Foods, and on Amazon
I thought there would be more, honestly, and a couple are close but either don’t include antioxidants (Neutral Skin and Hair) or have a few too many ingredients for my liking (TruKid). Miessence is another close option, but expensive.