Ask EWG: How to Choose the Best Sunscreen for Your Kids

We get it. Like so many things in parenting, choosing a sunscreen for kids has become ridiculously confusing and anxiety provoking. You don’t want your kids to get sunburned, or have other skin damage that can lead to cancer and premature aging later in life. But you don’t want to coat them in sunscreen – and get yelled at while you do it – only to find out later that it’s loaded with chemicals that cause their own health problems.

Some chemicals can have a more severe impact on children’s health than they do on that of adults, because children’s bodies, organs, brains and hormones are still developing – building the physiological systems they will live with for the rest of their lives. Adding exposures to hormone disruptors and carcinogens in early childhood can impact their lifetime health. And there are a number of chemicals in common sunscreens that raise concerns, including oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. The science is not settled, but there are plenty of good alternatives, so why take the risk?

Can you just tell me what *&#%! sunscreen to buy?

No, sorry we can’t. But we can teach you how to shop.

1) Go old school: Read the label

Knowing exactly what to look for on the label will alleviate a lot of sunscreen confusion and help you make the best sunscreen choice for your kids wherever you are – whether it’s a drugstore with a million options, a hotel gift shop or a camp store in the middle of nowhere. This knowledge is especially helpful when you don’t have cellphone service and access to Skin Deep® or our annual Guide to Sunscreens.

Right off the bat, we don’t recommend aerosol sunscreens or sunscreens with SPF over 50, so eliminate those. Sunscreen sprays may pose inhalation risks, and may not offer a thick and even enough coating to protect against the sun’s rays. Meanwhile, sunscreens with SPFs over 50 provide only slightly better protection than those with low SPF values, and they have a worse balance of protection against UVB and UVA rays. But they often fool people into thinking they can stay outdoors longer.

Next, take note that there are two primary types of sunscreens: mineral and non-mineral.

Mineral sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens were some of the first sunscreens deemed safe and effective when EWG started rating sunscreens in 2006, but they were also some of the hardest to find – relegated to natural food stores and online retailers. But now they can be found in most drugstores and many major brands make them.

Choose a mineral sunscreen with active ingredient(s):

  • Zinc oxide or
  • Titanium dioxide

But no:

  • Oxybenzone (in the active ingredients)
  • Fragrance (bottom of the ingredient list)
  • Retinyl palmitate, retinol or vitamin A
  • Spray application

Non-mineral sunscreens

These are your typical chemical sunscreens, which tend to be more widely available in all parts of the U.S. and are easier to find in a pinch. These also tend to be the sunscreens with the most problematic active ingredients, so knowing what to look for on the label is especially helpful. 

Choose a traditional sunscreen with active ingredient:

  • Avobenzone (3 percent)

This ingredient is critical for reducing UVA damage that can lead to skin aging and cancer.   

But no:

  • Oxybenzone (in the active ingredients)
  • Fragrance (bottom of the ingredient list)
  • Retinyl palmitate, retinol or vitamin A
  • Spray application

2) Get techy: Use one of EWG’s mobile or web tools

There are two ways to access EWG’s recommendations for kids’ sunscreen via your smartphone or computer: 

EWG’s Guide to Sunscreen

Every year, EWG’s scientists and number-crunchers evaluate hundreds of sunscreens on the U.S. market and tabulate safety scores for each based on the safety of a sunscreen’s ingredients, as well as its ability to block UVA and UVB rays. You can either skip right to our recommendations for the best kids’ sunscreens or – if you’re standing in front of a limited store selection – search for sunscreens by name to find your best option.

EWG’s Healthy Living mobile app

Our mobile app combines our Skin Deep® cosmetics database, Guide to Sunscreen and Food Scores databases into one mobile shopping tool. Using your smartphone camera, you can scan sunscreens’ UPC codes right in the store aisle to pull up safety scores. You can also browse by category to pull up our annual lists of top-scoring sunscreens.

3) Bring our list

Every year we publish our list of top-rated sunscreens. These products have formulations that meet our criteria for safety and efficacy, and they score in the top tier of our Guide to Sunscreens. You can take our recommendations right to your drugstore – or bookmark them for shopping on vacation – and pick a sunscreen directly from the list. They vary year to year as formulations change, so be sure to get the latest version. This year, our recommended sunscreen lists include:

Help! Sunscreen is messy, frustrating and has to be reapplied SO OFTEN. What’s the best way to get it on my kids and keep it there?


Dude, we’re with you. Putting sunscreen on wet, fussy kids can suck all the joy out of a relaxing summer day. But, then again, so can a sunburn.

First of all, dress kids in shirts and shorts, even at the pool. Reducing the amount of sunscreen needed by covering up with fabric means you’ve cut your battle in half or more. Shirts and shorts help protect kids’ skin during hikes and play time out of the water, and rashguard-type clothing can be used on top of (or instead of) swimsuits. Plus, kids’ shoulders and backs are prone to serious sunburn – especially when they’re playing in water – so using a barrier of clothing between their skin and the sun is simple and important. Add a hat and you’ve reduced kids’ chances of major sunburns and skin damage.

Second, and sorry for being boring, but avoid the sun as much as you can, especially with infants and young children. Plan to bring kids in for lunch or a nap midday when the sun’s rays and potential UV damage are the worst. And come equipped with a plan for shade – whether that’s a tree at the park, a pop-up shade tent or dashing to get one of the prime umbrella-covered spots at the pool. Don’t go out with without a plan to give kids a place to sit, eat and hide from the sun for periods of time.

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