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Sunscreens and Infants – What’s the Best Way to Protect Baby?

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You're enjoying a barbeque with family, and you brought your new three-month-old baby along to meet uncles, aunts, and cousins. But it's a warm day, and the sunlight is intense. Should you apply sunscreen to your infant's tender skin?

According to a recent FDA consumer update, probably not. Though babies actually need more protection from the sun than children and adults, sunscreen should not be your first choice. So what should parents use instead? And what about pregnant moms? Do sunscreens, particularly those with retinyl palmitate, increase risk of birth defects?

Why Infants Should be Kept Out of the Sun

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), infants younger than six months old should be kept out of direct sunlight. Powerful UV rays and the heat of the sun can be dangerous to a baby for two reasons. First, the heat can increase the risk of heatstroke. Many infants do not sweat properly, and thus, they are often less able to cool themselves off. In addition to becoming overheated, infants are also at a higher risk of dehydration.

Second, an infant has less melanin in his skin than he will later in life. Melanin gives the skin and hair its natural color, and also provides a natural protection against the harmful effects of UV rays. That means an infant is likely to develop a sunburn quickly, and if he does, that increases his risk for skin cancer. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, a person's risk for melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, doubles if he or she has had five or more sunburns.

Because of these potential hazards, the FDA recommends you keep your baby in the shade. If that is not possible, use an umbrella or the canopy of a stroller.

But what if you find yourself in the sun with no shade, and no way to create it?

Sunscreen Guidelines from the FDA and AAP

The next step, according to the AAP, is to use clothes. Dress the infant in lightweight pants and long-sleeved shirts with sunglasses and brimmed hats that protect the neck and ears. Even with clothes, however, your baby will have some skin exposed on the face and hands. Should you use sunscreen?

“The issue of whether sunscreen is safe for infants under the age of 6 months remains controversial,” says the AAP. The concern is that because a baby's skin is thinner than an adult's, it may be more likely to absorb the chemical ingredients in sunscreen. Add to that their smaller size and bodyweight, and you have a greater risk of exposure, which could lead to allergic reactions or inflammation.

The AAP notes that so far there is no evidence that using sunscreen on small areas of the baby's skin is associated with any long-term effects. Therefore, they recommend that when shade is impossible, it's safe to apply sunscreen to the face, back of the hands, and other small exposed areas. The FDA recommends an SPF of 15 or higher, and that you test a small amount on the inner wrist first to be sure your baby is not overly sensitive to it.

When choosing a sunscreen, the next question on many parents' minds is: Should we avoid retinyl palmitate?

Skin Cancer and Birth Defects?

In 2010, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued a health warning that sunscreen containing retinyl palmitate could potentially cause cancer in humans. Retinyl palmitate is a derivative of vitamin A used in sunscreens for its antioxidant properties. According to animal studies, the ingredient, when exposed to ultraviolet light, can increase the formation of free radicals, which encourage the development of skin tumors.

Additional concerns surrounding the ingredient include that it may increase the risk of birth defects when used by pregnant women. Vitamin A is a tetrogenic ingredient, and at high doses it has been linked to certain birth defects.

According to recent research, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that there is no evidence that retinyl palmitate in sunscreens can cause cancer in humans. In the animal studies, the ingredient was used in isolation, but in sunscreen on human skin, it comes into contact with other antioxidants that alleviate the risk of free radical formation.

In addition, according to a CBS News article (May 25, 2011), humans are not likely to absorb enough retinyl palmitate from the topical application of sunscreens to increase risk of birth defects. Of course, those who want to completely eliminate the risk can look for sunscreen formulations without retinyl palmitate.