Applying sunscreen to a squirmy toddler can be annoying – and so is listening to them complain about the slimy, greasy texture. That’s why some parents consider powder sunscreens, which are mineral-based products containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
“Powder sunscreens are easier to use and kids don’t complain, which are positives,” says Adena Rosenblatt, M.D., Ph.D, a pediatric dermatologist at The University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital. But powder sunscreens also have some disadvantages, like the potential for uneven coverage and inhalation of the powder. Here, we’ve broken down the basics of powder sunscreen, so you can decide whether it’s safe for your kids.
Most powder sunscreens are made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These natural mineral-based ingredients form a protective barrier against the sun’s harsh rays. They're non-toxic, non-irritating, and less likely to trigger reactions like contact dermatitis. In fact, Dr. Rosenblatt suggests looking for these active ingredients in all types of sunscreen, including creams and sprays.
Most powder sunscreens have a broad spectrum SPF of 25 to 50. Kids should use sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher, says Dr. Rosenblatt. Keep in mind that infants younger than 6 months should be kept out of the sun as much as possible.
To use powder sunscreen, distribute product onto the brush and rub into skin (see manufacturer instructions for details). The powder forms a protective barrier to block UV rays from the body.
Apply powdered sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure, and re-apply at least every two hours or after your child has been in the water. Many brands recommend two liberal coats during each application.
Powder sunscreen is portable and easy to use – and kids probably won’t complain about the dry texture, says Dr. Rosenblatt. But as of 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “has not authorized the marketing of nonprescription sunscreen products” in the form of powder, according to the FDA website.
That’s partly because powder sunscreen is often applied ineffectively. You need a thick, even amount of powder to ward off the sun’s damaging rays. Most parents put too little on the skin. Plus, since powders blend into the body, it’s hard to tell if you’ve done an adequate job with coverage.
Leaving skin unprotected can lead to sunburn, which increases the risk of skin cancer in the future. Sunburn is especially harmful for babies, since their inability to regulate body temperature may lead to dehydration and heat stroke.
Another concern with powdered sunscreen: kids could potentially inhale the substance during application, says Debra M. Langlois, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide aren’t harmful when applied to skin, but breathing them in may have negative effects. There isn’t currently a lot of research so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
FINAL VERDICT: Don't rely solely on powder sunscreen. Instead, parents could put powder sunscreen over a cream, spray, or stick sunscreen for increased defense against UV rays. The only exception: if you want to avoid getting greasy cream in your hair. “I think one location that could potentially be more helpful than a cream is along the part of the hairline – although the best option is still a hat,” explains Dr. Rosenblatt.