Are Sunscreen Products Safe?

moms rubs sunscreen on daughter's nose at the beach

The Bottom Line

Sunscreens are generally considered safe. The risk for an adverse effect varies depending on which active ingredients are in the product. Sunscreen can sometimes cause skin irritation, rash, and allergic contact dermatitis. Toxicity is low if accidentally swallowed, applied to the eyes, or inhaled. Sunscreen can be applied to children 6 months and older. 

mom applying sunscreen stick to toddler

What is sunscreen and why is it important?

Sunscreen is applied to protect the skin from ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Broad spectrum sunscreens block both UV-A and UV-B rays, which are the most damaging types of UV radiation. Chemical sunscreen (e.g., para-aminobenzoic acid [PABA], benzophenones, cinnamates, salicylates) absorbs UV rays before they can penetrate the skin. Physical sunscreen (e.g., zinc oxide, titanium dioxide) reflects the UV rays away from the skin. Sunscreens are available as lotions, creams, sticks, sprays, and other topical products. Sunscreen products have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating, with sun protection improving with increasing SPF. Sunscreens with SPF 15-30 provide sufficient protection for most people. UV rays are generally strongest from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM, so risk tends to be greatest at that time of day. Sunscreen can be used daily and should be applied liberally. Sunscreen should also be used on cloudy days since UV rays can penetrate clouds. Sunscreen is important since it lowers the risk of sunburn, premature skin aging, and skin cancer.

Is sunscreen toxic? Does sunscreen cause cancer?

Sunscreen is generally not considered toxic. The risk for toxicity varies depending on which active ingredients are in the product. Skin irritation and other adverse reactions are more likely to occur when applying chemical sunscreens. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates sunscreen and recommends its use. Sunscreens are not classified as known human carcinogens (i.e., a cancer-causing substance). However, in 2021, several sunscreen products were recalled due to contamination with the carcinogen benzene. 

Is sunscreen safe for pregnancy?

Sunscreen is generally considered safe when applied to the skin during pregnancy. If you have questions about the safety of a certain product, call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 or speak with your health care practitioner.

Can I put sunscreen on an infant? 

Sunscreen is not recommended for infants under 6 months of age. It is best to keep babies in the shade, provide them with a hat with a brim, and dress them in clothing that covers the body. One option is to look for clothing labeled with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF). There are many sunscreen products available for children 6 months and older.

Rash from sunscreen: Can you be allergic to sunscreen?

Sunscreen can sometimes cause skin irritation, rash, and allergic contact dermatitis. In some people, sunscreen with PABA-like ingredients can cause a photo-allergic skin reaction, which increases the risk of sunburn. If a skin reaction occurs, consider using sunscreen with a different active ingredient.

What happens if you eat sunscreen?

Although sunscreen is not meant to be eaten, our bodies can typically handle small amounts of digested sunscreen. Mild effects such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea may occur. In other words, swallowing a small amount of sunscreen doesn’t usually make people sick.

Sunscreen in eyes: Can sunscreen cause eye irritation?

Accidentally getting sunscreen in the eyes is more likely when using sprays or when trying to apply a lotion or cream on the face of a squirming child. Spraying your hands and rubbing them on your face minimizes the risk of getting sunscreen in your eyes. Sunscreen sticks are a good alternative for applying sunscreen to the face. Sunscreen in the eyes can cause irritation. If sunscreen gets in the eye, rinse the eye with water. Many sunscreens are water-resistant, meaning they are more difficult to remove from the eye when rinsing with water, so longer rinsing might be necessary.

What should I do if I inhaled sunscreen spray?

If you have inhaled sunscreen spray, the best initial treatment is to breathe fresh air. In most instances, this is all that is necessary. If you have trouble breathing, seek medical attention.

What should I do if sunscreen is applied incorrectly or if I am concerned about toxicity?

If you experience adverse or unexpected symptoms from sunscreen, get expert guidance from Poison Control online at www.poison.org or by phone at 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free, confidential, and available 24 hours daily.


Wendy Klein-Schwartz, Pharm.D., MPH
Clinical Toxicologist 

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Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Read product instructions.
  • Use broad spectrum sunscreen.
  • Use products with at least SPF 15-30.
  • Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outside.
  • Apply sunscreen generously and re-apply frequently (i.e., every 2 hours and after water activity).
  • Apply it to all exposed skin, including ears, nose, and neck.
  • Take advantage of different product formulations. For example, use spray on arms, legs, and torso, but use a stick or lotion on the face to avoid spraying in eyes. 

This Really Happened

A mom was applying sunscreen on her 4-year-old daughter. When she put the tube down to rub it onto her daughter’s skin, her 2-year-old son picked it up and squirted it into his mouth. He swallowed one mouthful before the mom grabbed the tube from him. He did not like the taste, but otherwise seemed fine. The mom called the poison center and was instructed to wipe out his mouth and watch for vomiting and/or diarrhea. If either occurred, she was instructed to give him fluids to stay hydrated, but there was no cause for concern.


For More Information

When Can Babies Wear Sunscreen? | Consumer Report

Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun | FDA


References

Balk SJ. Sun protection. Pediatr Rev. 2023;44(4):236-239. doi.org/10.1542/pir.2022-005545

Young AR. The adverse consequences of not using sunscreens. Int J of Cosmet Sci. 2023;45(suppl.1:11-19. doi: 10.1111/tcs.12897

Wood  AC, Albertini LW, Thompson LA. What parents should know about sun and sunburns in children. JAMA Pediatr 2023;177(5):547. Doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.5907

Guenther J, Johnson H, Yu J, Adler BL. Photoallergic contact dermatitis: No fun in the Sun. Cutis. 2022;110(5):241-243. doi:10.12788/cutis.0651

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Read product instructions.
  • Use broad spectrum sunscreen.
  • Use products with at least SPF 15-30.
  • Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outside.
  • Apply sunscreen generously and re-apply frequently (i.e., every 2 hours and after water activity).
  • Apply it to all exposed skin, including ears, nose, and neck.
  • Take advantage of different product formulations. For example, use spray on arms, legs, and torso, but use a stick or lotion on the face to avoid spraying in eyes. 

This Really Happened

A mom was applying sunscreen on her 4-year-old daughter. When she put the tube down to rub it onto her daughter’s skin, her 2-year-old son picked it up and squirted it into his mouth. He swallowed one mouthful before the mom grabbed the tube from him. He did not like the taste, but otherwise seemed fine. The mom called the poison center and was instructed to wipe out his mouth and watch for vomiting and/or diarrhea. If either occurred, she was instructed to give him fluids to stay hydrated, but there was no cause for concern.