To protect your kids from the sun it would be helpful if you were a dermatologist and a chemist. If you are not, you should read this article. (Some readers complained that my previous posting, “The sun does to kids’ skin what tobacco smoke does to adult’s lungs was “unnecessarily scary.” Click here to read it. Facts are facts. )
Here’s the latest:
1. There are basically two types of sunscreens, physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens coat the skin with a “shield” blocking out more than 99% of the sun’s harmful rays. This prevents both tanning and burning. Chemical sunscreens penetrate the skin, settle in the deeper layers, and absorb the sun’s rays. This prevents burning but allows tanning. All tanning is skin damage and is unhealthy for children.
2. For children, choose physical sunscreens, ones containing titanium or zinc oxide. These give the best protection and are least likely to cause reactions. Until recently, only messy products were available. But now such sunscreens are “micronized,” making them virtually invisible on the skin. However, “micronizing” creates particles so small that they can penetrate the skin.
3. Use “messy” physical sunscreens in the form of lotions and creams. Most are white in color, allowing you to see that you covered all exposed skin. Apply liberally to areas prone to burning – ears, nose, back, neck, and shoulders. Other forms of physical sunscreens – wipes, powders, body washes, aerosols and shampoos – have various drawbacks. With all sunscreens, avoid getting into kids’ eyes – it can sting. Use appropriate sunglasses. Never use baby oil in the sun; it enhances burning.
4. Avoid chemical sunscreens. Common ingredients in chemical sunscreens are oxybenzone, avobenzone and retinyl palmitate, substances that penetrate the skin and can cause allergic and other reactions. Be leery of products labeled “natural,” “organic” or “child friendly.” Many have not been thoroughly tested for safety.
5. Sunscreens with SPFs of 30 suffice. SPFs (sun protection factor numbers) roughly reflect how well products block ultraviolet (UV) rays. SPFs of 30 block 97% of the rays. SPF 50 blocks 98% of rays. Higher numbers may be counterproductive, containing more chemicals for insignificant increases in protection.
6. Choose sunscreens labeled “broad-spectrum.” These protect against both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B. In the past, many products protected only against UVB, the “burning” rays. It was thought that only these rays caused damage. More recent studies show that UVA rays, the “tanning” rays, also cause damage.
7. Sunscreens are not recommended for infants younger than six months of age. Young Infants readily absorb substances applied to their skin, possibly casing toxic reactions. In fact, sunscreens have not been tested on infants. But, if no other means of sun protection are available, sunscreens labeled as appropriate for infants are less harmful than bad sunburns.
8. Sunscreens can no longer be labeled “sweat proof” and “waterproof.” All sunscreens eventually wash off. Labels can only claim products are “water-resistant,” and must specify whether they protect for 40 or 80 minutes of being in water. (The sun penetrates about 12 inches of water.) Excessive sweating counts as time in water. Sunscreens that are not water-resistant must state so on the label.
9. Applying the correct amount of sunscreen is difficult – and expensive. Reapply every two hours. Protection is affected by wind, humidity, environmental temperature, and other factors. A one-year old child wearing a skimpy bathing suit requires about two teaspoons per application. A 7-year old, about four teaspoons. There is little correlation between cost and effectiveness of various brands.
10. Additional information. Avoid products containing fragrances – they attract bees. Be leery of products promising “all day protection.” Sunscreens marketed for infants cost more but offer only minor benefits. Store in original containers, in a cool place, and out of sunlight. Exposure to certain plastics, heat, and light can affect ingredients. Many sunscreens stain fabrics. When applying both sunscreens and insect repellents, apply sunscreens first, then repellent. If your child takes medications, antibiotics or ibuprofen, for example, check with your pharmacist or on the web if the two are compatible. Some medications amplify burning.