Sunscreen: Safe for babies?

Our three-month-old baby got a little sunburn at the lake. The bottle of sunscreen recommends using only on babies six months of age or older. What can we use so that our little one can enjoy the outdoors without being concerned about another sunburn?


Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

By now most people have realized the dangers of the sun's harmful rays on both adults and children.

There has been great improvement for skin protection in the way of sunblock with adequate SPF of 30. In addition, there are now products designed especially for kids in the way of lotions in fun colors. Children enjoy them because they get coated in a wacky hue, and parents like them because you can actually see the parts of skin that have been missed.

Although these products were made for children over the age of six months, the American Academy of Pediatrics says they are okay to use on younger babies if there is no way to avoid the sun. They recommend:

"For babies younger than six months, use sunscreen on small areas of the body such as the face and the backs of the hands if protective clothing and shade are not available. For babies older than six months apply to all areas of the body but be careful around the eyes. If your baby rubs sunscreen into her eyes, wipe the eyes and hands clean with a damp cloth. If the sunscreen irritates her skin, try a different brand or try a sunscreen stick, or sunscreen or sunblock with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. If a rash develops, talk to your child's doctor."

There are two very important reasons for not overusing sunscreen in young babies:


  1. Infants and children have what is called a high body surface to volume ratio. What this means is that proportionately babies have more skin for the size body as compared to an adult. Sunscreens are made of chemicals. On the older child and adult, the chemical exposure is relatively minimal because the body surface ratio is smaller than a baby. Therefore, babies get a higher "dose" of sunscreen than do those older. While this exposure would most likely not cause any problems, the likelihood of an adverse reaction is greater.
  2. Babies have a mildly impaired mechanism to keep cool by sweating. In addition, they have a greater risk of becoming dehydrated due to heat. Sunscreen can somewhat impair effective cooling by perspiration, so placing too much of it on an infant could be detrimental.


So, in the summertime when there is so much fun to be had outdoors, what's a new parent to do with the baby?

Remember that little ones need extra care in the heat to make sure they do not become dehydrated. How is this done? There are a number of creative ways that you may come up with, but here are a few suggestions:


  1. Keep babies under six months of age out of the direct sun.

  2. Feed your baby frequently, with breastmilk or formula. The water content in either of these will help keep your baby well hydrated. While a little extra water is okay, one must be careful not to overdo it because babies may actually drink too much of it and suffer from what is called water intoxication which can cause seizures or worse.

  3. Use a wide brimmed hat. Most babies will tolerate this with perhaps a little extra distraction at first to help them get used to it.

  4. Use light but long clothing. Covering the skin with clothing (while it doesn't fully protect the skin underneath) is a good way avoid sunlight exposure.

  5. Use a canopy as much as possible. When in the stroller, put the canopy up. One couple used to take their portable crib which had mesh sides and turn it upside down on the baby while she napped. This kept the sun as well as the bugs away!


I'm sure your baby and your family love the time together at the lake, but it is very important to keep your little one undercover. Remember, up to 85 percent of the sun's rays may be reflected off the water or sand, so try to rig up protection to help avoid this indirect yet potent source of burning. Finally, I suggest you try enjoying the shaded areas around the lake during peak sun hours (10am to 4pm) while saving the water time for later in the evening.

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