Sunscreen and skin sensitivity

Q: My daughter seems to react strongly when sunscreen is applied near her eyes, nose and mouth, and now she refuses to let us put it on. What can we do?

A: In many ways, sunscreen lotions have great success preventing sunburns — and also reducing long-term cancer risks. And, in recent years sunscreen lotions have been made to be longer lasting, more water resistant, easier to apply and have a higher level of sun protection for children of younger ages.

Children, especially young children and toddlers with more permeable skin, can react to a number of different components in sunscreen. They can react to something in the base — the lotion component — or they can react to the chemicals, which are added to block absorption of the ultraviolet rays. 

The base can have various ointments, fragrances or colors added to make it more appealing, yet any of these could be irritants. The sun-blocking chemicals in sunscreen can definitely cause skin sensitivity. Higher “sun protection factor” (SPF) sunscreens tend to have a higher concentration of chemicals that can cause reaction problems in a small percentage of children.

A suggested approach is to try a variety of sunscreen products and see if there are some that aren’t so bothersome: Sometimes a lower SPF sunscreen may be easier to tolerate. Clear spray-on products may not cause as much of a reaction. 

Finally — if all else fails — hats, sunglasses, sun-protective clothing and keeping children out of the sun as much as possible, especially between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. may be the solution that works best. 


Dr. Peter Dehnel is a board-certified pediatrician and medical director with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota. Send your questions to drdehnel@mnparent.com. 

This column is intended to provide general information only and not medical advice. Contact your health care provider with questions about your child.