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Sunscreen Safety for Babies: When It's Safe to Use, Application Tips and How to Treat Sunburns

As your little one starts exploring the world outside, sun safety becomes top of mind. These tips will keep your baby safe and happy as they enjoy time under the sun.

Adult putting sunscreen on a baby's arm while at the beach
Sun safety is important for everyone, but especially for babies. 
ozgurcankaya/Getty Images

As your baby becomes more interested in their surroundings, your instinct might be to take them outside -- where they can experience a realm of different textures and sounds. However, whenever you decide to introduce your little one to the great outdoors, it's important to protect them from sun exposure. 

Our guide helps you determine when it's safe for your baby to use sunscreen, application tips, how to treat sunburns and when your child should see a pediatrician if they get a sunburn. 

Is sunscreen safe for babies? 

The Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend you avoid using infant sunscreen on babies under 6 months of age because their skin is more sensitive. Sunscreens can cause rashes that irritate your child's skin. Keeping them out of the sun for the first six months is the safer alternative. 

If you feel the need to apply sunscreen before they reach 6 months, be sure to consult with your pediatrician ahead of time. They can advise you which sunscreen is the most appropriate. 

Father putting sunscreen on their child

Consult with your pediatrician if you have any concerns.

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How to keep babies safe from the sun's rays

The first tip is to ensure they have adequate shading -- especially if they're under 6 months old and you do not plan to use sunscreen. Try to find a shaded area or have an umbrella on hand to shield them from the sun. They can also wear a brimmed hat to protect their head, ears and neck.

You'll also want to make sure your baby's outfit covers their arms and legs to minimize exposure to the sun. Aim for lightweight clothing that breathes well, as your child does not sweat the same way as an adult does. Babies have a system still in development. This means they may not be able to cool themselves as fast as an adult can, leading to overheating. Try to pair lightweight materials with long sleeves and pants to protect your child's hands, legs and arms from sunburn. 

How to choose a sunscreen for your baby

You'll want to be mindful of the type of sunscreen you use for your baby. Here are some tricks to balance keeping their skin protected from the sun while trying to minimize skin irritants:

  • The AAP recommends parents use sunscreen with an SPF from 30 to 50 on their baby's face, top of their feet, and the back of their hands. 
  • Shop for a sunscreen labeled "broad spectrum" as it protects your child from both UVA and UVB rays. 
  • "Mineral-based sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is preferred over chemical-based sunscreen that contains avobenzone, octinoxate, or oxybenzone," says Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, a medical consultant for Mom Loves Best. "Oxybenzone may have mild hormonal properties. Do not try to completely rub the sunscreen in for mineral sunscreen, the skin should look slightly gray."
  • Lotions work much better than sprays. When emitted into the air, sprays lose some of their thickness and do not coat evenly. (Plus, trying to spray a wiggly kid can be challenging.)
  • Avoid sunscreens with perfumes like dyes or parabens -- these chemicals can be skin irritants.
  • "Use sunscreen even on cloudy days as 80% of the sun's rays may get through. Also, the sun's rays can be reflected back from concrete, sand and snow," says Poinsett. 

How to apply sunscreen to babies

You'll want to apply an even layer of sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure. Pay close attention to easy-to-forget areas like behind the ears, the tops of the hands and their nose. Once outdoors, you'll want to reapply sunscreen every two hours you plan to be out. That way, they continue to have the protection they need.

Mother applying sunscreen on a toddler's arm with an inflatable pool in the back

Once outdoors, you'll want to reapply sunscreen every two hours you plan to be out.

SelectStock/Getty Images

How to soothe a sunburn 

Sunburns appear within the first six to 24 hours after exposure. "For mild to moderate sunburn, you do not need to call the doctor as long as your baby is acting normal. Apply a sensitive skin, unscented cream or ointment moisturizer to the areas of burn," says Dr. Andrea Zaenglein, a member of the Society for Pediatric Dermatology. 

If the sunburn appears bothersome, you can give your child some acetaminophen, provided you follow the instructions on the label. You'll also want to inspect the sunburned areas every couple of hours to ensure it's not becoming more severe.

When to call your pediatrician

Contact your pediatrician immediately if you notice the sunburn becomes more severe and your baby develops symptoms like fever, blisters or appears ill. Blisters, in particular, can be prone to infection. And when your baby has a sunburn, they could be at a higher risk of dehydration and heatstroke. Your doctor can address these symptoms and devise a treatment plan to have your baby feel healthy again. 

The bottom line 

For the first six months, keep your baby in the shade and have them wear light material clothes covering their arms and legs. Once they're 6 months old, you can start to use sunscreen with an SPF between 30 and 50 containing zinc oxide to reduce skin irritation. You'll want to apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you go out, and every two hours after that. If your child has sunburn, a cold compress can help. If they seem ill or have a fever, give your pediatrician a call to see if they need medical assistance.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.