Three-month-old develops "horrible rash/burn" after using sunscreen

Jessie Swan says her son developed a rash after using the sunscreen.
Jessie Swan says her son developed a rash after using the sunscreen. 

When Jessie Swan put sunscreen on her three-month-old son this summer, she could never have imagined what would happen next.

The Queensland mother carefully applied Cancer Council's SPF50+ Peppa Pig sunscreen before taking her little boy outside - only to later discover her baby had a "horrible rash" which caused him to be hospitalised for two nights and three days.

Jessie wrote in a Facebook post that her boy had not been in the sun. She says she only put sunscreen on him "just in case" because he was "simply outdoors".

Consequently, she says the rash isn't sunburn. Rather, she says, it's a "reaction to the cream".

Her post, which was written on January 2 and directed to Cancer Council Australia, has been shared over 8000 times, and has accumulated almost 4000 comments.

Many parents shared similar stories, but others had only positive comments, saying they swear by the product.

It didn't take long for Cancer Council to respond, expressing concern over the incident and calling it "upsetting".

They noted their sunscreen has been formulated to be suitable for delicate skin.

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"It has a lower level of active ingredients when compared to other products and we have selected preservatives that are known to be more gentle on the skin," the statement read.

They also stated that every product they release is approved by the TGA "and meets very strict regulatory and quality standards".

While Queensland dermatologist Dr Laura Wheller from South East Dermatology didn't treat Jessie's baby, she says there are many reasons why he may have reacted that way.

She said it could be severe allergic contact dermatitis, a skin reaction which develops due to an allergic reaction, adding, "It's also possible, however, to have irritant contact dermatitis to sunscreen, which is similar in nature to a chemical burn."

Other possibilities include improper application of sunscreen ("which does not seem to be the case for this patient"), or if the sunscreen's active ingredients didn't work.

Despite these possibilities, Dr Wheller says the most common reaction to sunscreen is simply mild stinging or burning on application.

"A severe reaction like this case is very uncommon."

If your child develops a severe skin reaction, she urges you to seek immediate medical help.

However, she also implores parents to continue using sunscreen on their children.

"There is good evidence that sunburns in childhood in particular are linked strongly with the development of skin cancers in later life, therefore sunscreen in this young age group is imperative."

She reassures that sunscreens can be used in babies "of any age".

When choosing a sunscreen for your baby, Dr Wheller advises opting for a fragrance-free product that has been specially formulated for sensitive skin.

She also recommends choosing sunscreens that contain physical blockers of sunlight (such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide), rather than chemical blocking agents.

To avoid potential allergic reactions, Dr Wheller says you should patch test first by applying a small amount of product to the inner upper arm. You can repeat this test again before applying it more liberally the next time.

However, if you are hesitant about using sunscreen on your baby, Dr Wheller recommends avoiding sun exposure.

"Stay in the shade, wear a broad-brimmed hat, and keep [your] baby's skin completely covered with opaque long sleeves and pants."

Avoid going outdoors during the day when the UV index is at its highest, and opt for early morning or late afternoon outings instead.

Thankfully, Jessie has since updated her original post to say that her baby has been discharged from hospital and "is doing much better".