The Best Sunscreens for Kids, According to a Parent and a Pediatric Dermatologist

published May 16, 2022
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Credit: Courtesy of Walgreens and CVS

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When our daughter was just a baby, we ordered the bougiest, highest-SPF sunscreen we could find. I popped it in the diaper bag and we were good to go — until I stopped carrying the diaper bag. After that, I couldn’t for the life of me remember to grab sunscreen when we left the house. Since it’s recommended you don’t keep it in your car (extreme heat can shorten the lifespan of the product), I found myself stopping at the drugstore quite often to grab a stand-in. The problem was, there were just so many options that I got overwhelmed.

I never knew what to look for other than a high SPF. Luckily, we hit the neighbor jackpot when we moved next door to Dr. Sarah Chamlin, mom and pediatric dermatologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, who taught us so much about protecting and caring for our daughter’s skin.  Here’s what we’ve learned about what kind of sunscreen to buy for kids.

Credit: Ashley Poskin

The 4 Most Important Things to Look For in a Kids Sunscreen

  • Broad spectrum, to protect from harmful UVA and UVB rays that can cause skin cancer
  • At least SPF 30 or higher
  • Water-resistant for at least 40 minutes, preferably 80 minutes
  • Active ingredients should ONLY be zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Both ingredients are naturally occurring minerals that do an impressive job at protecting your skin from UVA and UVB rays. This means you’ll be looking for a mineral-only sunscreen (not “mineral-based,” which is mix of both mineral and chemical ingredients).

Aerosol sprays are almost always a “no.”

As convenient as they may be, you still have to rub in the sunscreen and they don’t provide great coverage — not to mention the fact that there are lots of chemicals in the products. However, Dr. Sarah said sprays can come in handy if your child has thin hair, or needs to have their part covered with sunscreen because they’re unable to wear a sunhat (UPF 50 fabric hats can protect against 98% of the sun’s rays ). While hair can protect your scalp, any exposed skin is still susceptible to damage from harmful sun rays. I was able to find a few non-aerosol sprays that met her requirements; however, they are impossible to find at drug stores, and can be very pricey.

Try sunscreen sticks.

Keep them with you at all times in your personal bag. They’re solid, so you don’t have to worry about them spilling and ruining your bag. They’re great for using on the face, especially the under-eye area where sunscreen tends to get rubbed off quicker than the rest of the body when swimming, because of goggles. 

Don’t skip the lips.

Sunscreen lip balm is a must. Don’t forget to protect your child’s lips!

With Dr. Sarah’s advice in hand, I found seven sunscreens – many available at drugstores like Target, CVS, Walgreens, or online at Amazon – that met the standards Dr. Sarah had shared with me. I tested each one at home on my daughter to see which met the standards of my picky kid. My daughter isn’t a fan of lotions and potions, so in addition to Dr. Sarah’s standards, I came up with a few of my own: 

  • I wanted to find something that would go on quickly and easily, but still felt thick enough to do the job of protecting her skin. 
  • I didn’t want the sunscreen to have a strong scent.
  • I wanted to be sure it was reef-friendly, free of oxybenzone and octinoxate. 

Here Are 6 Top Sunscreen Picks for Kids:

1. Baby Bum Mineral 50 Sunscreen Stick

The stick glides on almost like deodorant. The active ingredient is 19.2% zinc oxide, so it’s a good option to keep in your bag at all time. It’s not super easy to apply and has an interesting smell — sort of like Play-Doh — but once it sits on the skin, it mixes with your natural oils and blends in well.

2. Baby Bum Mineral 50 Sunscreen Lotion 

There are a few small differences between the Baby Bum Mineral stick and the Baby Bum Mineral lotion, the most noticeable being a tiny bit more zinc oxide in the lotion, and the scent. The lotion is labeled “fragrance free,” but both my daughter and I thought it had a subtle scent that reminded me of something lightly spicy like cinnamon, and maybe coconut. It wasn’t unpleasant! The lotion goes on nicely. It’s thick enough that you feel confident it’s actually protecting your child’s skin against harmful rays, but thin enough to spread easily for good coverage. I really liked this one and consider it a top pick.

3. Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Mineral Sunscreen 60+

Neutrogena has been around forever and is known to be a great product, so I wasn’t the least bit surprised by how it tested. The lotion is easy to spread, there’s good coverage, and the active ingredients are 4.9% titanium dioxide and 4.7% zinc oxide. It’s a good option for squirmy kids who won’t give you a lot of time to cover them with sunscreen. 

4. Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby SPF 50

This one has a lot of the same ingredients as the Neutrogena sensitive skin sunscreen, but was thicker and took a little more effort to rub into the skin. It’s tear-free and fragrance-free, but there is a really light, pleasant smell to it. The active ingredient is 21.6% zinc oxide, compared to Neutrogena Sensitive Skin’s 4.9% titanium dioxide and 4.7% zinc oxide mix. Though it was thick, I didn’t mind the consistency and would choose it as a top pick.

5. Coppertone Sport Mineral SPF 50

This Coppertone sunscreen lotion had the highest concentration of zinc oxide out of any I tested, coming in at 24.08%. It’s marketed as a “face” sunscreen, but Dr. Sarah said that doesn’t matter, and it’s great to use all over as you would any other sunscreen. The consistency was pretty drippy and got on my pants, so that was a bummer, but that’s my only complaint. It has good coverage and a thick finish and will definitely do the job.

And my very favorite … 

This one is the trifecta of greatness: 20% zinc oxide, spreads easily with fantastic coverage, and cute packaging to boot! It has a light, pleasant scent, and in addition to Dr. Sarah’s requirements as a pediatric dermatologist, it meets and exceeds my requirements as a mom who needs a great product that is easy to apply and won’t break the bank. An added perk: you can tell your kids that Anna from “Frozen” wants them to use the product because she co-founded the company! Hello Bello wins my pick for best sunscreen lotion overall. Okay, and best marketing — they got me.

Updated from post originally published May 29, 2021