Earlier this summer, my 1-year-old had a miserable afternoon. It was hot out, he was cutting a bunch of teeth, and his older brother had accidentally whacked him in the face with an oar (#momoftheyear). So I chalked his hourslong bout of fussiness/watery eyes/redness up to all of that.
But then a few days later, it happened again and this time more intensely: His eyes got red, he broke out in hives and he was clearly uncomfortable. I called his pediatrician’s office, and they told me it sounded like he was having some kind of reaction to the sunscreen I’d just slathered all over him. Duh.
Now that summer is in full swing, sunscreen is especially important for kids who spend any amount of time outdoors (although the American Academy of Pediatrics says the first and best line of defense against sun damage is covering up with clothing and avoiding the sun during the peak-intensity hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
But if your little one seemingly cannot tolerate sunscreen, what’s a parent to do? We asked the experts to break down some of the basics.
What is a sunscreen allergy and how common is it?
Irritation-type reactions are what they sound like: the skin might sting and get red or rashy, and your kid could seem pretty darn uncomfortable. “Many of sunscreens out there can be quite irritating, especially for children who have eczema or sensitive skin,” said Dr. Jonathan Silverberg, a dermatologist who led the Asthma and Allergy Foundation’s Atopic Dermatitis in America study. “It’s not uncommon to get mild stinging and burning.”
True allergic reactions tend to be rarer, although Silverberg said there isn’t good data on sunscreen allergy specifically. They can present in a manner similar to an irritation reaction, or can seem to come on days after the fact, popping up in small blisters that Dr. Scott Norton, a dermatologist with Children’s National Health System, described as looking kind of like poison ivy. Other times, people experience what’s known as a photo-allergic eruption, which is triggered when sunlight interacts with a particular ingredient in sunscreen.
The experts said parents may not particularly care whether the reaction their child is having is an irritant reaction or a true allergy if the results are pretty much the same: a kid who is clearly uncomfortable every time he or she puts on sunscreen.
But if it’s a repeat problem, doctors will want to figure out what’s at the root of it, because allergic reactions can get worse the more a person is exposed to a particular irritant. So, ultimately those distinctions can make a difference from a medical perspective.
So, my kid’s skin freaked out. Now what?
First, parents should be reassured that unlike, say, a peanut allergy, sunscreen allergies (or irritant reactions, as the case may be) are not life-threatening.
“None of these are catastrophic,” said Norton. Annoying and potentially painful, yes. But not grave.
That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Both Silverberg and Norton said it’s a good idea to touch base with your kid’s pediatrician if this is an ongoing occurrence. If you follow this advice, be sure to take the sunscreen (or sunscreens) you used so the pediatrician can take a look at the active ingredients.
Both derms recommended parents consider using a physical sunscreen as opposed to a chemical one on kids who seem to be having an issue. Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin ― and absorb the sun’s rays ― and they contain active ingredients like oxybenzone and avobenzone. (Recently, studies have suggested they’re absorbed into the skin at higher levels than were previously thought.)
Physical sunscreens, by contrast, sit on the skin’s surface and deflect rays, like a shield. They contain active mineral ingredients, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and they’re what the American Academy of Dermatology recommends for those who have sensitive skin.
“Natural” products aren’t necessarily the answer.
In addition to the active ingredients in any physical or chemical sunscreen, each has its own unique vehicle of delivery ― basically, all of the other ingredients ― and they ultimately could be what’s causing your kiddos’ problems. (And the word “natural” on products isn’t regulated at all.) The key? Keep it simple, simple, simple, Norton said.
“I’d avoid the products that claim to be ‘natural’ and that have a lot of botanical products in them,” he said. “It makes it a real challenge for the dermatologist when you’re looking at products with 10, 20, even 30 different botanical agents in them.”
Remember your other options.
Again, the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes that when it comes to sun protection, the first defense really should be covering up with protective clothing and hats, and staying out of the sun when it’s strongest.
“We don’t recommend becoming vampires and never going out during the day. Obviously it’s going to happen,” Silverberg said. “But when possible, avoiding that intense sun exposure when it’s the strongest ― from around 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. — definitely helps.” Hats can be especially important for young kids who seem to tolerate sunscreen pretty well on their arms and legs, but who are more sensitive to it when it is applied to their face. (Unwelcome news to yours truly, as my little guy is a hat-removal champ.)
And keep in mind that sunscreen reactions ― again, whether it’s an irritation or full-blown allergies ― can change over time. Babies tend to have much more sensitive skin than older kids, so it could be something your child eventually outgrows. Or it could be the kind of thing that sticks with them (and even possibly worsens) over time. Everybody’s different, which is why the experts recommend checking in with a health care professional.
“If you’ve cycled through a few sunscreens and your child is having reactions to them,” said Silverberg, “it’s probably time to go in for a patch test and see does this reflect an allergy? Sensitive skin? Or something else?”