Baby's skin is much thinner than that of older children and adults, and it absorbs the chemical ingredients in sunscreen more easily

Baby on beach - Avoid Putting Sunscreen on Infants
Image: Pixabay
Updated: June 13, 2017

You're at the beach or pool, slathered in sunscreen. Your 5-month-old baby is there, too. Should you put sunscreen on her? Not usually, according to Hari Cheryl Sachs, M.D., a pediatrician at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"The best approach is to keep infants under 6 months out of the sun," Dr. Sachs says, "and to avoid exposure to the sun in the hours between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when ultraviolet (UV) rays are most intense."

Sunscreens are typically recommended for children and adults. So what makes babies so different?

According to the FDA, baby's skin is much thinner than that of older children and adults, and it absorbs the active, chemical ingredients in sunscreen more easily. Infants also have a high surface-area to body-weight ratio compared to older children and adults. Both of these factors mean that an infant's exposure to the chemicals in sunscreens is much greater, increasing the risk of an allergic reaction or inflammation.

The best protection, says Dr. Sachs, is to keep your baby in the shade, if possible. If there's no natural shade, create your own with an umbrella or the canopy of the stroller.

If there's no way to keep an infant out of the sun, the FDA recommends applying a small amount of sunscreen, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, to small areas such as the baby's cheeks and back of the hands. Before you do so, test your baby's sensitivity to sunscreen by first trying a small amount on the inner wrist.

Before heading out into the sun, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests dressing infants in lightweight long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and brimmed hats that shade the neck to prevent sunburn. Tight weaves are better than loose. Keep in mind that while baseball caps are cute, they don't shade the neck and ears, sensitive areas for a baby.

In addition to the risk of sunburn, the FDA points out that summer's heat also presents other challenges and potential dangers for babies. While sweat naturally cools the rest of us down when we're hot, babies haven't yet fully developed that built-in heating-and-cooling system. So you want to make sure your baby doesn't get overheated.

In the summer heat, babies are also at greater risk of becoming dehydrated. To make sure they're adequately hydrated, the FDA recommends offering them their usual feeding of breast milk or formula. The water content in both will help to keep them well hydrated. A small of amount water between these feedings is also okay.