Baby Sunscreen and Regular Sunscreen: What’s The Difference?

Buying sunscreen for a holiday is not quite the grab-and-go affair that it used to be. 

For the last couple of decades, mums have checked the sun protection factor (SPF) stated on a bottle, perhaps grabbed a ‘regular’, child’s and baby version, and flung the bottles in the suitcase.

Now we have sunscreens claiming all sorts of different protections. Extended use (reapply in 8 hours). Water-resistance. Sweat resistance. Reef-friendly. Hypoallergenic. The choice can be baffling, particularly when you multiply these variations by brand names, and then SPF level.

Baby Sunscreen and Regular Sunscreen

What if you could get one cream which can be used safely by your whole family?

The good news is that you can. If you’re in a rush, check out our top three products which are as good for baby and for the environment as for the rest of the family.

Following that, we’ll provide you with a little more detail about how sunscreens actually work while busting some of those marketing myths which might have been influencing your product decisions.

Our Top Recommended Sunscreens

OUR TOP PICK

Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion | Vegan and Reef Friendly (Octinoxate & Oxybenzone Free) Broad Spectrum Moisturizing UVA/UVB Sunscreen with Vitamin E | 8 oz

Summary

This is an 8oz bottle of high protection lotion which is everything-free. The formula is gluten- and paraben-free, cruelty-free (hasn’t been tested on animals) and it’s one of the kinder brands for coral health, too, labeled as reef-friendly.

The product is not advertised as hypoallergenic, but it has multiple reports of good performance on sensitive skin. Although it might take a little more effort to rub in than other sun creams, it does absorb well without leaving white streaks. It also contains vitamin E.

There are some reviewer reports about the cream being stingy if sweat makes it slide down into your eyes. Suggestions vary from wearing a bandana or hat to wearing a no-tears baby product on the forehead. Alternatively, apply thinly but reapply often.

Pros

  • Lighter on the pocket
  • A good, universal option for the whole family
  • Strong staying power after water immersion

Cons

  • You might want a separate whole-family product for the face

EDITORS CHOICE

Baby Sunscreen Natural Sunblock from Thinkbaby, Safe, Water Resistant Sunscreen - SPF 50+ (6 ounce)

Summary

This product is Amazon’s choice for baby sunscreens and has a 80% five-star rating across nearly 1,200 reviews.

It comes in a 6oz tube, provides the highest level of water resistance among competing products, and provides broad-spectrum coverage for protection from UVA and UVB rays. Like most baby creams, it does not use nano-particle formulation with additives to make it spread more easily, as is common with adult formulae.

This product has been formulated to slide on easily without that oily feel or strong smell. We’ll explain the significance of the nano vs non-nano particle formulation further down, where we answer the question about whether the sunscreen products advertised at different age ranges are truly interchangeable.

Thinkbaby is a particularly strong contender for snorkeling or beach holidays as the cream is biodegradable and does not contain the chemicals associated with reef bleaching or marine pollution. The product is wholly vegan as well as not having been tested on animals.

If you want a cream with a conscience, which works quickly and spreads on easily, then this is a great option. The last thing you want is for your non-sunscreened older child (or partner!) to vanish into the distance with bodyboard or bucket and spade while you’re still trying to apply a protective layer to a wriggly infant. 

Pros

  • Outstanding sunscreen performance
  • Easy to apply: a little goes a long way
  • Smells very nice: citrusy is the common description
  • Gentle on the screen and no stingy eyes

Cons

  • You might need two tubes for the family for a week

BEST VALUE

Kokua Sun Care SPF 50/80 Min Water Resistance Reef Safe Natural Zinc Sunscreen

Summary

This product is an optimum choice for holidays involving water sports in the open sea. It’s touted as one of the best formulations for reef protection by marine protection organizations, coming up time and again in the ‘best of’ selections by experts in the area.

It’s also comprised of 25% non-nano-particle zinc oxide, representing the highest proportion of organic surface block-protection on the sunscreen market. But what’s it like to put on? It’s absolutely glorious to apply, says the feedback.

It goes on clear, leaving no marks at all, and spreads easily and quickly. Little wonder it’s Amazon’s choice for reef-friendly sunscreens.

One of the real plus points of this product is the proportion of natural ingredients to safeguard the skin against dehydration as well as from the dangerous effects of UVA and UVB rays. The moisturizing component comes from: macadamia and kukui nuts (and oils); noni; kukui nut oil; plumeria extract; spirulina extract, and Konared coffee fruit extract, exclusive to Hawaii.

The benefit of this, of course, is that you don’t get that baked feeling after a day on the beach, and you don’t necessarily have to spend an hour walking around your residence with an inch of aloe plastered all over your skin—even if you did avoid a burn.

Pros

  • It is one of the more water-resistant products on the market
  • No additional or artificial scents beyond those which come with the natural ingredients
  • Strong anti-burn protection
  • Great for sensitive skin
  • Can be worn under makeup

Cons

  • The most expensive option in a small quantity

Demystifying Sunscreen

What marks out baby sunscreen as different from ‘regular’ sunscreen?

Essentially, baby sunscreen is less complicated. The two active ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, have larger particles to form a stronger skin barrier against sun rays, which means that they sit on the skin as a white layer.

You can rub it in quite extensively so that the ghostly layer eventually vanishes, but it takes a lot of work. Baby sunscreen tends to be biodegradable, which essentially means that it breaks down into organic compounds with progressive exposure to heat. This is part of what makes it more reef-friendly, but we’ll come back to that aspect shortly.

Adult formulations use nanoparticles of the same active ingredients, but to create a biodegradable sunscreen that goes on clear (to avoid the Casper the Ghost effect), a lot of extra chemicals need to be added. These are additional to any artificial scent or moisturizing elements absent from infant sunscreens for fear of provoking allergic reactions. Regular sunscreen (for kids or adults) can contain parabens (increasingly banned, thankfully), camphor, and BP-2/3, which are hugely damaging to marine life.

So, why aren’t adults helping themselves to baby sunscreen all the time? This is partly because of the power of marketing—if we believe that products aimed at babies are going to be uniquely made for babies’ needs, then logically there must be a gap in the formulation which makes it less suitable for older children and adults, right?

After all, why bother having a huge range of ‘kids’ sunscreens if these are no different from regular sunscreen or baby sunscreen? The only real difference with most kids’ sunscreens is that they’re formulated for quick application and quite often come in spray or aerosol form.

The second reason for adults generally opting for a regular, nicely packaged and attractive-smelling formula is that it sinks in when you apply it, leaving your skin glossy rather than white. Vanity drives a lot of marketing strategies in the sunscreen business.

Are SPF70 sun creams twice as powerful as SPF-30 sun creams?

No. It may help a little if we explain how the SPF number is reached. A suncream is tested by applying UV light to screened skin for a sustained period until the threat of a burn emerges. That time is measured and divided by 10.

So, if it takes 300 seconds for the first signs of pinkness to appear, then you’ve got an SPF-30 cream on your hands. Now, a SPF-30 cream will give you around 97% protection from the sun. More powerful creams have fractionally stronger skin protection power, but not to the point where they will withstand double the amount of UVA/B radiation.

The SPF rating system now stops at 50+ in many countries to prevent the illusion that a higher protection factor is going to effectively act as a sunblock. It won’t.

What about water-resistant or extended wear sunscreens? Can you use those for babies?

So long as it has a high protection factor, is hypoallergenic, and you continue to reapply the cream every 80 minutes regardless of the claims made on the bottle, then yes. These sunscreens won’t hurt your baby if you’re stuck in a small shop and your options are limited. The Kokua sunscreen which made our top three list isn’t formulated specifically for babies, but is ideal nonetheless.

Cancer awareness and dermatological organizations urge people to be very wary of any product which claims that a single application in 8 hours will be sufficient, or that the product is nearly waterproof. Water resistance testing does not take into account the greater speed at which the sunscreen breaks down following sustained exposure to chlorinated or salt water (or fast-moving water).

The protection factor can fall by nearly 60% after 40 minutes. Just reapply that cream when you’re out of the water, and every 80 minutes on dry land, and you’ll be apples (as the Aussies say).

What does ‘Reef-friendly’ mean?

The shortest and simplest answer is that it doesn’t contain any of the active UVB-absorption ingredients which stunt coral growth, pollute the water for sea creatures, or bleach the reefs. This is a serious enough problem now that it is illegal to use regular sun screen in Hawaii and some parts of Florida.

The damage done by 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen washing off around the reefs every year is worse than the problems caused by global warming.

If you want to make your own stand against this pollution problem, then take a peek at the product ingredients for the main culprits: oxybenzone (BP-3), octinoxate, or benzophenone (BP-2). If the product claims to be reef-friendly and you can’t see those ingredients, then you’re good to go.

Now, if your vacation doesn’t take you near a beach, then Sun Bum SPF70 lotion is a nice product to use for the whole family. The 8oz bottle is also more generous and lighter on the wallet than some of the products targeted exclusively at babies.

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