Why Are So Many Kids Having Scary Reactions To Sunscreen? Experts Weigh In

A mother's nightmare has become a viral sensation, spreading the news of a new summertime risk for kids. But just how serious is it?

July 5, 2017
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The sun shone brightly in May of 2017.

A Canadian mom named Rebecca Cannon planned to take her 14-month old daughter, Kyla, out for a day in the sunshine. Like any good mother, she planned to protect her child’s sensitive skin from harsh UV rays. So she took out a can of an aerosol SPF-50 sunscreen and sprayed little Kyla down.

A few days later, Cannon shared frightening pictures of Kyla’s badly burned face on social media.

“It has been verified and confirmed 3 times now a 2nd-degree caustic burn (chemical burn)[sic],” Cannon wrote. In an interview with CBC News, Cannon went deeper into her terrifying experience.

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“As the day went on, she got a little redder and redder and the next morning she woke up and was swollen, she was bright red, there were blisters starting to pop up,” Cannon said in that interview. “We immediately took her up to the doctors and found out she has second-degree burns.”

So what’s going on?

Did the sunscreen somehow magnify the strength of the UV rays hitting Kyla’s face? Was there some caustic chemical in the sunscreen that was injuring the poor little girl?

Parents magazine tasked writer Melissa Willets with finding out. So Willets did what journalists do: She talked to the experts.

Rachel Prete, a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Orlando’s Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children didn’t think there was anything special about the brand of sunscreen involved in this incident.

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“To my knowledge there is no additional ingredient [this sunscreen] uses that their competitor sunscreens do not,” she told Parents. “Each child is different in the way they respond to sunscreen, especially on the face where the skin can be more sensitive.”

Prete suggests that Kyla may have had an allergic reaction to a substance called oxybenzone, which “is present in about 65 percent of chemical sunscreens on the market,” she said.

Willets had another question. Could it have been the fact that this sunscreen was packaged in an aerosol can that caused the injury? She asked dermatologist Janet Prystowsky of Livad Skin Care. Prystowsky couldn’t say for sure, but she did mention that she doesn’t recommend aerosol sunscreens for infants in the first place.

“The problem with [aerosol sunscreens] is that, with infants and toddlers, it can be tough to apply adequate coverage,” Prystowsky said. “You don’t want your child to inhale the sunscreen either, which is always a risk with aerosols. Plus, the child may rub it off almost immediately. It can be hard to tell for any parent.”

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Unfortunately, the sad case of Kyla and the sunscreen remains a mystery.

However, there are steps parents can take to protect their children from a similar fate, whether it’s an allergic reaction or a harsh chemical. Start by choosing the right sunscreen to keep in your beach bag.

“I recommend broad-spectrum mineral-based sunscreens that come in a lotion or stick for the face,” Prystowsky said. “Choose a sunscreen that is age-appropriate. If you choose a high SPF of 50+, make sure that your active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. You’ll notice adds a white tint and doesn’t blend in fully. For small children, this can be an easy way to ensure that they are wearing sunscreen.”

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In addition to sunscreen, use hats and clothing to cover your infant fully.

” I can’t stress enough how important clothing is for your child’s sun protection,” she said. “A bucket hat will protect their scalp, ears, and upper face.”

Finally, Prystowsky reminded us that infants shouldn’t be exposed to direct sunlight at all until they’re at least 6 months old. After that, parents should limit sun exposure. With these tips and the right kind of sunscreen, you should be able to avoid an ordeal like the one Kyla and her mother experienced.

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