Whether they're at the pool or a picnic, kids need to wear sunscreen—but they don't necessarily need to wear a kids sunscreen. Many people believe that sunscreen labeled for kids and babies is a special formula, is "safer" than other sunscreen, or that it's regulated by the government, according to a recent survey of 1,000 adults in the U.S. by the Consumer Reports National Research Center. The fact is that the Food and Drug Administration doesn't make a distinction between kids sunscreen and other types, nor does it hold sunscreen to a higher safety standard for children.
So what makes a kids sunscreen a kids sunscreen? Not much. Compare ingredient labels on a kid formula and an adult formula from the same brand and you often find that both sunscreens contain the same active ingredients in the same concentrations.
Manufacturers use the same active ingredients—those that protect against the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays—in different combinations in all sunscreens. These UV filters come in two types: chemical (such as aveobenzone, homosalate and octisalate) and mineral (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide). When it comes to inactive ingredients, the fragrance might be different in a kids product or it may not contain chemicals that could cause stinging or tearing. But there are cases when the list of inactive and active ingredients are the same in the adult and kids formulas.
There are kids' sunscreens and adult sunscreens for sensitive skin that contain only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. These minerals may be less irritating to skin than chemical sunscreens. But when it comes to sun protection, minerals are no better than chemicals. In fact, in some cases they perform less effectively.
What about sprays? About half of people who buy sunscreen—for kids or adults—opt for them primarily because they're perceived to be easier to apply. You may be giving up coverage for convenience, however. It can be hard to judge just how much sunscreen is actually getting onto your skin when you use a spray, and factors like spray pattern or how windy it is outside can increase the odds of missing a spot. There's also the risk of lung irritation if you inhale the spray, and spray sunscreens are flammable if you get too close to an open flame (like a grill) before they're thoroughly dry. Because of those safety concerns, Consumer Reports doesn't recommend spray sunscreens for children.
It's important, too, to remember that sunscreen is just one part of a good sun protection strategy for both children and adults. You also need to cover up, wear a hat, and take shelter under a beach umbrella or a shady tree. Sunscreen is protective, but it's not a magic bullet.