Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” baby sunscreen, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
A Few Takeaways
Physical sunscreens that contain non-nano zinc oxide are a go-to when lathering up your little one for some fun in the sun. Avoid spray-on sunscreens since they may not provide even protection from the sun. Steer clear of oxybenzone, titanium oxide, or sunscreens containing fragrances.
Common Questions We Get:
What is the cleanest sunscreen for babies?
Unfortunately, there’s no internationally recognized definition for “clean.” And, if you’re looking for ingredients that are better for people and the planet, that doesn’t mean a label that says “clean” is synonymous with being more “sustainable”. Steer clear of oxybenzone, titanium oxide, or sunscreens containing fragrances.
Is there eco-friendly sunscreen?
Eco-friendly is technically defined as ‘not harmful to the environment’, but this is an impossible standard for a product to meet. So, no, there is not any eco-friendly sunscreen. However, there are sunscreens that contain ingredients that are less harmful to the environment. Steer clear of oxybenzone, titanium oxide, and sunscreens containing fragrances.
Is baby sunscreen toxic?
To be honest, ‘non-toxic’ doesn’t actually mean much of anything. In fact, no chemical or material is purely “non-toxic.” So no, baby sunscreen isn’t non-toxic. There are some options that are better for people and the planet than others, though! Physical sunscreens that contain non-nano zinc oxide are a go-to when lathering up your little one for some fun in the sun, and steer clear of oxybenzone, titanium oxide, and sunscreens containing fragrances.
Baby sunscreen is part of the sun care products industry…estimated to reach $14.7 billion by 2028. And, it’s no wonder – we’re learning more and more about the importance of protecting our skin and the skin of our little ones! Babies are delicate and so are the coral reefs; that’s why we’ve got you covered with sunscreen that’s right for your newborn's skin and for the environment.
Want to see science-backed sustainability ratings on all of your fav products?
What to Be Wise On:
To start, it’s recommended by the FDA and American Academy of Pediatrics that babies 6 months and under should not wear sunscreen. Once your little crawler really starts to get a move on, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF between 30-50 is highly recommended to protect their exposed skin so that playtime stays safe for longer. We are neither doctors nor dermatologists, so from here on out, we’ll stick to the science.
Sunscreen (for babies and their full-sized counterparts) can contain chemicals, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, that contribute to coral bleaching and have even been banned in places like Hawaii and Palau. In addition to the environmental effects, various studies have shown that ingredients like oxybenzone can cause endocrine disruption, skin irritation, and other adverse effects during pregnancy and the early years post-birth.
The Factors to Consider:
Organic UV filters
There’s a reason why parents slather their kids in sunscreen – and it’s not just because sunburns are painful and make the rest of the time in the sun uncomfortable. Overexposure to the sun can lead to some pretty serious human health impacts – including inflammation, immunosuppression, changes in skin texture and appearance (premature aging), cancer, and even DNA damage. To avoid these, many sunscreens contain UV filters – but not all are created the same when it comes to your little ones’ (and the planet’s!) health. Before taking a look at the UV filters listed below, make sure to avoid spray sunscreen. Spray application doesn’t guarantee an appropriate even thickness of sunscreen.
Oxybenzone is a UV filter with some pretty nasty potential impacts on babies’ and pregnant people’s health. Oxybenzone has been found to accumulate in the pregnant mother’s bloodstream and concentrate at high enough levels to interrupt embryonic development leading to Hirschsprung’s disease in newborns. Several studies have also linked oxybenzone concentrations to allergic skin reactions, lowered testosterone levels in adolescent boys, endocrine disruption, and increased risk of endometriosis and breast cancer. Yikes.
Sadly, it doesn't stop there. Oxybenzone has a host of other adverse effects on the oceanic ecosystem. It’s been shown to impair green algae's growth and photosynthesis, induce defects in young mussels, damage sea urchins' immune and reproductive systems, decrease fish reproduction and fertility, and accumulate in dolphin's tissues and be transferred to their young. Whether you're taking your baby for a dip or not, oxybenzone can still find its way into the ocean once the sunscreen is washed off in the shower, too.
Zinc oxide is a common ingredient in sunscreen because it’s a physical sunscreen, meaning that it isn’t absorbed into the skin to protect against UV rays. Suppose you read our Wise Guide on Diaper Rash Cream. In that case, you know that zinc oxide is a common and generally-considered safe ingredient used in rash cream due to its astringent and antiseptic properties that ease irritation and prevent bacteria from living on the skin. For this reason, it’s also great for babies – it’s less likely to cause rash or irritation of the baby’s sensitive skin. However, there’s a difference between non-nano zinc oxide and nano zinc oxide. Nano zinc oxide contains nanoparticles, which have been shown to have negative impacts on soil, plants, and animals. Nano zinc oxide can bioaccumulate in plants, affecting crop development and yield, and can cause cell damage in animals. On the other hand, studies show that non-nano zinc oxide isn’t known to cause any kind of skin irritation in humans or adversely impact the pH of soil. The win goes to non-nano zinc oxide!
Titanium oxide is another physical sunscreen, effective at preventing UV damage. Many studies show that the typical particle size of titanium oxide cannot penetrate through the skin and even when the particle size is incredibly small, and it doesn't exhibit any kind of human toxicity. While titanium oxide is relatively safe for human use (when applied to the skin in a physical form), it’s not so friendly to the planet. Titanium oxide is shown to cause ecotoxicity in aquatic animals, zebrafish gills, and aquatic environments, disrupting biodiversity and promoting germination and root expansion in terrestrial plants. When considering sunscreens with titanium oxide, it’s important to weigh all potential costs – not just the human impact. Ahhh, intersectionality.
Many sunscreens have a familiar, nostalgic scent – and it’s important to avoid those that try to cover it up with fragrances. Fragrances can indicate the presence of phthalates and synthetic musks, which are known to disrupt hormones, irritate babies' skin, and lead to developmental and fertility problems.
High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a plastic commonly used for sunscreen because it’s UV resistant. Good news? HDPE is readily recyclable (depending on your local municipality’s recycling capabilities).
Not so good news? A study using a life cycle assessment (LCA) evaluation on products manufactured from virgin HDPE and recycled HDPE from post-consumer packages had some interesting results. Using a CML 2 method, they found that when it comes to human toxicity and eutrophication, the virgin HDPE has significantly higher impacts, but in ozone layer depletion, climate change, and acidification the recycled HDPE was the clear loser, creating significantly higher impacts.
So, if you already have those HDPE sunscreen bottles, you can reuse them if you’re interested in trying to make your own personal care products like deodorant.
Sunscreen and the sunny outdoors go hand-in-hand… and this often leads to sunscreen getting into bodies of water. It's estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into the ocean each year. That's equivalent to the weight of 1,100 school buses! Once washed off, some harmful UV filters (like oxybenzone) can enter the water and can be absorbed by coral. Once absorbed, the effects can be devastating. The microparticles impair the coral’s DNA and cause them to become sterile. Another effect is the heat-trapping that causes the phenomenon known as "coral bleaching." This is caused when the coral reaches a high enough temperature causing the symbiotic algae that provide nutrients and protection to leave. The coral turns white without the algae and usually dies.