Sunscreens come in two types: chemical or mineral, regardless of whether they are meant for kids or adults. Both types significantly reduce short and long-term damage to the skin and the risk of skin cancer later in life.
But which one is better for kids?
Though the FDA has not labeled either type unsafe, several studies show that mineral sunscreen is better for kids than chemical sunscreen. This is because the ingredients in chemical sunscreens get absorbed in your bloodstream and can cause health problems.
To understand this sentiment better, we need to look at both because the difference lies in how they work and the ingredients.
What is Chemical Sunscreen?
As the name suggests, chemical sunscreen is made of non-natural chemical compounds such as Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Homosalate, Octisalate and Octocrylene.
When these chemicals absorb into the skin, they absorb the sun’s UV rays and turn them into heat before dissipating them. This prevents the rays from penetrating the skin and causing harm.
- Because of its makeup, chemical sunscreen is easier to apply and absorbs better to the skin.
- Most chemical sunscreens have a moisturizer.
- They last longer and offer more prolonged protection.
- The skin absorbs all the ingredients in chemical sunscreens and transmit trace amounts to the blood stream.
- Some of these chemicals can irritate sensitive skin.
- Some studies have shown that the chemicals can cause hormonal disruption and allergic reactions.
- They take 20-30 minutes to absorb and start working against UV rays, so you must wait before leaving.
It may cause an allergic reaction in kids with melasma, rosacea or sensitive skin.
What is Mineral Sunscreen?
A mineral sunscreen, on the other hand, uses natural minerals as its active ingredients.
The most common minerals are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which occur naturally but can also be made synthetically.
Mineral sunscreens also work very differently from chemical sunscreens. Instead of getting absorbed into the skin, the product sits on top of the skin and offers protection by deflecting UV rays away from the skin. This is why they are also referred to as sunblock or physical sunscreen.
- The natural ingredients are very safe for kids and sensitive skin.
- The product starts working immediately.
- It can be applied on top of makeup and other skin care products.
- It’s difficult to blend into the skin because of the thick texture.
- It can leave a white film on the skin if not blended enough.
- It can be pricier compared to chemical sunscreens.
- Mineral sunscreens need to be applied more often.
That said, there are a few sunscreen products out there that combine chemical and physical sunscreen. Check the ingredients when purchasing to ensure you get chemical or mineral sunscreen, not both.
Go with Mineral Sunscreen for Kids
While the FDA has not deemed any sunscreen product or their ingredients unsafe, the existing studies leave a lot of food for thought. For example, a 2019 randomized study published in JAMA shows that four of the most common ingredients used in chemical sunscreens (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule) absorb into the bloodstream at a greater level than the FDA requires of topical medications.
A follow-up study echoed the sentiments but also stated that just because chemicals enter your bloodstream doesn’t mean they are causing harm.
Moreover, the Environmental Working Group warns against chemical sunscreens with oxybenzone because it may disrupt hormones and cause severe allergic reactions.
Meanwhile, the FDA recognizes the primary ingredients in mineral sunscreens as 100% safe and effective. It is therefore a no-brainer which type of sunscreen to choose for your kid’s sensitive skin.
Other Factors to Look for in Sunscreen for Kids
Regardless of whether you go with a mineral or a chemical sunscreen, there are other factors you should consider.
SPF refers to how long the sunscreen reduces the penetration of UVB rays into your skin. For example, SPF 30 means it will take 30 times longer for UV rays to burn your skin than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. We have a great article on how to choose SPF in sunscreen here.
For kids, sunscreen with SPF 30 to 50 is good enough, according to the AAD. The difference in sun protection from SPF 50-70 is marginal and not worth the higher price tag. What’s more, creams with higher SPF ratings may contain more chemicals, which can harm the skin.
The other word you want to look at when buying sunscreen is broad-spectrum, after SPF. While SPF will protect the skin from UVB rays, it does a lousy job against UVA rays. Broad spectrum means the product has the power to protect your skin from the more harmful and cancer-causing UVA rays.
You need water-resistant sun protection if your kids want to play with some water at the beach or the pool. This should also stay put when they sweat or get rained on. Thankfully, most sunscreens in the market are water-resistant.
It would be pointless to avoid the active chemicals in chemical sunscreens only to get them in the form of fragrances and parabens. Ensure the sunscreen for kids is free of any aroma, fragrances and other harmful chemicals.
Cream over Spray
Last but not least, go for cream sunscreens over their spray counterparts. This is because tiny particles from the spray can be breathed in through the baby’s nose or mouth and cause irritation or asthma.
It’s also much harder to know if you have covered every part or applied enough when using a spray. You would need to spray a thick layer to be sure. Creams make application easier, and you can spread it all over.
Which Type of Sunscreen Should You Choose?
The bottom line is, Mineral or physical sunscreen is better for kids than chemical sunscreen. However, both options are significantly better than not applying any sunscreen on your child. In fact, NHS recommends using sunscreen on babies over six months every time you go outside, even if there’s no sun. Sun rays can penetrate even on seemingly cloudy and windy days.
If there’s sun, however, try to keep the kid out of direct exposure as much as possible. In other words, stay in the shade or under an umbrella when possible. A hat and a sunsuit will also come in handy as extra protection, and don’t forget to keep the child well-hydrated.