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Sunscreen for Children with Sensitive Skin

Sunscreen, Acne & Toddlers

By Amalah

Hi Amalah,

I have a question for you about sunscreen, and/or my own freakishness. I have a four-year-old who attends preschool all day. The first half of the day is the “school” portion, and the second half is daycare, with lots of indoor and outdoor activities. The preschool’s outside playground is partially shaded but has a lot of area open to the sun.

We have malignant melanoma on both sides of our family (my father and my husband’s mother) so we tend to be ridiculously vigilant when it comes to sun exposure. Now that the sun is out regularly, we have started to put sunscreen on her every day before school. I guess that’s the first part of my question…is putting it on every day when the majority of the day is spent inside kind of overkill? The reason I’m asking is her skin, especially on her face, is breaking out in those little tiny baby-acne-looking bumps and it’s making me wonder if we are doing more harm than good. We have tried several brands (Neutrogena, Coppertone, Mustela, etc., and always PABA free) and all seem to produce the same results. So the second part of my question is if we are doing the right thing in slathering her up every day, is there a brand you recommend for little ones that doesn’t cause their skin to freak out?

Thank you so much!

Overkill? NO! No no no. Your daughter needs to be wearing sunscreen every day, and unless her school/daycare is applying it for you, pre-outdoor activities (some schools will, while others have a please-apply-at-home policy), AND you trust that the teachers are doing a good, thorough job, you should definitely be applying it every day. And not just on bright “sunny” days, either. If the school still has outdoor time on gray/hazy/overcast days, then she should still be wearing sunscreen, because UV exposure is still happening on cloudy days, thanks to ozone depletion.

Given your family’s history with skin cancer, a little toddler acne definitely doesn’t rank even close in the “more harm than good” Olympics. One bad sunburn, or just a persistent tinge of pinkness all summer long, can have lasting, damaging effects for your daughter. A smattering of clogged pores won’t.

Not that you’re crazy for not particularly LOVING the look of those clogged pores, so what can you do? Well, if she’ll wear them, a hat and sunglasses can help block the sun and let you go a little lighter on the facial application. Make sure you’re using a hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic and fragrance-free sunscreen (preferably labeled for sensitive skin) on her face — we like the Neutrogena spray-ons for our kids’ bodies, but use California Baby for their faces, since it’s the gentlest and most free-of-suspicious-crap variety I’ve personally come across. (I’d love to use it everywhere on them, but it’s expensive and a pain in the butt to apply, so I prioritize.) I’m guessing the Mustela version you used was a mineral-based non-chemical sunscreen, so…California Baby might not be all that different for you, but sometimes you just never know why one thing works and one thing doesn’t. (Take Noah and the TERRIBLE rash he gets from Burt’s Bee’s Buttermilk Lotion but nothing else from that same line, and the fact that my niece is honest-to-God allergic to California Baby’s offerings, despite it SEEMING to be the least irritating or allergenic stuff on the planet.)

And wash your daughter’s face every day when she gets home from school using a mild cleanser and a washcloth to get rid of the sunblock build-up. Usually whatever mild, tear-free wash you’re using at bathtime is enough — but you might want to double-check that it’s also fragrance free and hypoallergenic and all that. Do NOT bust out an adult acne wash or other product. Her skin is too delicate, and the additional irritation from a harsh oil-fight product is all but guaranteed to make the rash/spots/bumps worse.

It’s also possible that your daughter’s bumps aren’t actually acne from the sunblock, but a bit of heat rash from an increase in physical activity while out in increasing temperatures. Noah gets a bit of this on his cheeks, even in the winter when he’s sunblock-free most of the time, but spending regular chunks of time running around at karate or indoor play gyms and getting all flushed and sweaty. Try mayyyybe skipping the sunblock for a few days and replacing it with a wide-brimmed UV-blocking sunhat and a pair of sunglasses. If the rash persists, bring a nice, cold wet washcloth in a baggie when you pick her up and let her cool her face off in the car. (And try to skip the quick face-wipes using disposable baby wipes during the day — I’ve found that even the most sensitive-type wipes tend to make facial rashes worse, but there’s something about a plain old wet washcloth that works wonders at stopping skin irritation in its tracks.)

If the bumps clear up, then yep, you’re right that it’s the sunblock. Keep up the trial-and-error with the brands and go as natural and irritant-free as you possibly can. But don’t stop applying. You’re doing more good than harm, for real. You can both live with the bumps, but not with lifelong sun damage.

If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected]

Published May 23, 2011. Last updated July 19, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Isabel


    May 23, 2011 at 11:31 am

    I use California Baby on my son because he hates the smell of Badger sunscreen. Both are very pricey. I nearly fainted when I saw the price tags.

    I use the Environmental Working Group’s database to look at the effectiveness and safety of the sunscreens on the marketplace. Here it is: Just type in your sunscreen’s name and see what they think.

    For fairness’ sake, here is an article that claims the EWG’s research methods are based on old technologies and biased. Yeah, not everyone agrees with them:

  • Amy J

    May 23, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    As a follow up question at what age should we start to apply sunscreen?

  • Zinna

    May 23, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    We’re a California Baby family as well. The only thing I would wonder about is whether the sunscreen is effective without reapplying by the afternoon. So, if you could have your daycare apply (the stick is easier to use for quick application on the face) before she goes outside so she’s not wearing it all day long but just in the afternoon. And yeah, wash it off when she gets homes.

    I wonder if that would help with any acne. If not, I’d go ahead and schedule an appointment with a dermatologist. Just to be sure there’s not something else going on with your daughter.

    To AmyJ: as a follow-up, I was always told no sunscreen before 6 months. But that could be antiquated.

  • Melissa

    May 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    I have severe eczema and almost all sunscreen burns on my face at first. My stepfather is also a dermatologist (convenient!) and his office started carrying this—All-Clear.html
    It is so awesome. It is powder with a brush. Goes on clear, lasts a long time, is water proof. I think it wouldn’t cause pore blocking like a cream/lotion sunscreen. It is expensive but it lasts a long time (I buy two tubes a year and use it almost daily) If you find a derm who carries it near you, you could try samples first. I use it on my little godchildren (1 and 3 years) and they love it. You could also send it to daycare for reapplying. I think if your little one only goes outside in the afternoon and you’re putting the sunscreen on in the morning, it definitely needs to be reapplied. Good luck!

  • JenVegas

    May 23, 2011 at 5:08 pm

    Amy J,
    When we went on vacation with our 5 month old our Dr. told us to go ahead and stock up on the sunscreen and start using it. Our daycare requires a Dr. Permission slip to apply sunscreen (and any other OTC drug/vitamin etc…It’s a little annoying.) So I haven’t started sending him to school with it yet but when we go in for his 6 month check up I’m going to have her sign off on it since they spend so much time outside on nice days.

  • Katie S.

    May 23, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    My son’s school has us send a bottle of sunscreen with them when it gets to the summer months, along with swim stuff and water shoes for water play outside. They always apply it. I’d think the daycare would be willing to work with you on that, considering your history. We are in CA though so I don’t know if we’re just more sun-aware.
    The bumps do sound like the same heat rash type thing my sweaty little boy gets on his face and arms. 

  • Janna

    May 23, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    We like to use Episencial’s Sunny Sunscreen:
    It’s a chemical-free sunscreen, uses organic ingredients, and is a very environmentally-friendly company. It is a bit pricey, but it works great, slathers on smoothly, and I know it’s safe for baby skin.

  • Miranda

    May 24, 2011 at 12:24 am

    We have been using CA Baby sunscreen since it is so free of junk but I just read that the active ingredient it has (titanium dioxide) only protects against one type of UVA rays. We are switching to the neutrogena one for sensitive skin that contains zinc oxide which protects against both uva1 and uva2 rays. My son is fighting it though. He loves the CA Baby stuff. Please tell me if I’m wrong in what I read.

  • Laura

    May 24, 2011 at 12:26 am

    Have you tried Arbonne’s Baby Care Sunscreen? It works well, is also from an environmentally-friendly company, has no petroleum products in it, and works well. You have to get it through a consultant, though. Email me if you’re interested.

  • Papagayita

    May 24, 2011 at 7:10 am

    Doesn’t sunscreen wear off after several hours, especially if clothing is rubbing against it/kid is sweating?

  • Leslie

    May 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

    Amy, my son has had a rash off and on for the last couple of months. I assumed it was eczema, but finally figured out it’s that Burt’s Bees Buttermilk Lotion!  Glad to have figured it out, but now I miss that sweet smell.  What did you end up finding that worked for Noah?

  • Isabel


    May 24, 2011 at 10:28 am

    Miranda, thanks for that info on California Baby and UVA rays. I did some preliminary research and from what I can tell you’re correct: titanium dioxide (the active ingredient in CA Baby) only protects against UVB and UVA2 rays. If you also want protection against UVA1 rays you need a sunscreen which contains zinc oxide (shields UVA1, UVA2, and UVB) or Avobenzone (shields UVA1 only). I got this info from:

    I need to do so more studying, but it looks I’m going to switch away from California Baby to one that includes zinc oxide but is still a low health concern. Janna’s recommendation of Episencial’s Sunny Sunscreen looks good.

    Looks like I will be doing a lot of studying soon.

  • Alex on Trial

    May 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Hi Folks,

    Please note that dermatologists recommend sunscreen be re-applied every two hours, or more often if you are getting wet and/or sweaty.  It isn’t about the lotion rubbing off your child’s skin, but that sunscreen’s efficacy wears off in time.  So, though it can’t hurt to apply sunscreen in the morning, the childcare staff must apply it again in the afternoon, if you want to protect your daughter from sun exposure.

  • Erin S

    May 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    I have crazy super sensitive skin and am also that blasted combination of fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and blonde-haired that’s like the definition of cancer danger zone. My son is the same way, and we both are sadly quite sensitive to the CA Baby line of sunscreens. Our skin breaks out in a heat-like rash if we so much as think about sweating when we apply it (and this happens all over our faces, chests, arms, etc). I have had really good luck with the Bare Escentuals powder sunscreen – it doesn’t irritate my skin, doesn’t make me feel like my skin is suffocating, and OMG NO ACNE. I get the untinted, which can be hard to find at Sephora/Ulta but I can order it online. At $30 for the tube, it’s not cheap, but I’ll stomach it ’cause it keeps my son from burning!! As a bonus, it doesn’t slide off of my skin when I sweat, as I found most other sunscreens (natural or not) do.

  • tasterspoon

    May 24, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks to the previous commenters for the helpful links.

    I am a huge fan of Kinesys sunscreen. I’ve put it on the morning of a triathlon in Florida and through five hours of swimming and sweating was sunburn protected. (Well, I know I was protected because of the areas I forgot to lube up, ouch.) That speaks only to UV-B, but the ingredients listed seems promising for the other. Octinoxate 7.5%, Octocrylene 7%, Octisalate 4%, Avobenzone (Parsol®1789) 2%
    They have kids and “girls'” versions…and they smell WONDERFUL (the kids version is fragrance free). I’ve never broken out from it and the website says it’s noncomedogenic/hypoallergenic. I recommend the spray format.

  • Emily

    May 25, 2011 at 10:58 pm

    I recommend trying witchhazel. It’s cheap, available at pretty much every grocery store, completely natural and I believe the solution to my adult acne. Wash, apply witchhazel, moisturize and go to bed. I have to wear sunscreen often myself.
    Also, the baby sunscreen bottle says ‘6 months’ for the person with that question.

  • Amy in StL

    May 27, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    I have really sensitive skin on my face, and have finally found a moisturizer with sunscreen that doesn’t make me break out. I don’t know if you’d be okay using it on your child but it’s Go Clear Moisturizer with sunscreen. I tried pretty much everything in Sephora and at the department stores, and this was the first thing that didn’t give me bumps, oily skin or rashes. Good luck, I had a lot of sunburns as a child so good for you for trying to spare your kid that pain.

  • Jasmine

    May 28, 2011 at 11:28 am

    The problem could be that your kid is allergic to chemical sunscreen ingredients or the alcohol content. I am very allergic to avobenzone, octinoxate, etc etc. I use a mineral sunscreen – Zinc Oxide is actually the best ingredient – it blocks both UVA and UVB rays in the whole range. Better yet, it doesn’t leave a white cast like Titanium Dioxide. The problem with using mineral suncreams are that they might be a little sticky for kids and will need a good cleanser (as the suncream creates an adhesive layer over facial skin). Zinc Oxide also features in lots of organic suncare products 🙂

  • Autumn

    May 30, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    I use Original Sprout ( products on my kids. They’re all natural, 100% vegan and completely amazing. They just came out with a sunscreen and I can’t wait to try it. It does have zinc and claims to be non-greasy. Hope that helps.