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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 (update: a number of these aerosol sunscreens have been recalled by the company as of summer 2021) , 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]

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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