Protecting your kids from the sun is not child’s play. For kids to have safe fun in the sun you must decipher ongoing barrages of conflicting information on sun protection and evaluate innumerable products claiming to provide that protection.
This is Part Two: Sunscreens. If you haven’t already read Part One: Sun Protective Clothing, click here and read it first.
Here’s what you should know:
1. There are basically two types of sunscreens, physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens place a “shield” over the skin, blocking out more than 99% of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. This prevents tanning and burning – when done correctly. Chemical sunscreens penetrate the skin, settle in the deeper layers, and absorb the sun’s rays, permitting tanning but only minimizing burning. Complicating the issue is that each type of sunscreen offers numerous additional features, some beneficial for infants and young children, some not.
2. Choose physical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens contain titanium or zinc oxide as active ingredients. These have been well studied and appear to be safe. The ingredients do not penetrate skin, minimizing sunscreen-related toxicities and allergies. Until recently, only messy physical sunscreens were available. But now these sunscreens are “micronized,” making them virtually invisible on the skin. However, “micronizing” creates particles so small that they can penetrate the skin. The messy products may be safer. Micronizing is also reason to avoid spray/aerosol products. These too require small particles that can penetrate the skin. Moreover, sprays can irritate eyes and be inhaled if not carefully applied.
3. Avoid chemical sunscreens. These especially penetrate the thin skin of infants and young children, possibly causing allergic reactions, and may be absorbed into the blood stream. The active ingredients of chemical sunscreens, most often oxybenzone, avobenzone and retinyl palmitate, have been linked with toxic reactions. Chemical sunscreens must be applied 20 to 30 minutes before exposure, allowing time for the ingredients to penetrate the skin and become protective.
4. Use physical sunscreens in the form of lotions and creams. Most are white in color, allowing you to see that you covered all exposed skin. Generally not recommended for infants and young children are sunscreens in the form of wipes, powders, body washes, and shampoos. Never use baby oil in the sun; it enhances burning. Avoid applying sunscreens near the eyelids – they can irritate eyes. Protect eyes and lids with appropriate sunglasses.
5. Sunscreens with SPFs of 30 suffice. Sun protection factor numbers roughly reflect how well the product blocks 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. In the future, in the US, sunscreens with SPFs greater than 50 will be labeled “SPF 50+.”
6. Choose only sunscreens labeled “broad-spectrum.” In the past there was confusion between protection against UVB, the “burning” rays, and UVA, the “tanning” rays. SPF numbers were based on protection against UVB; it was believed that UVB caused most of the damage. Recent data show that both types of rays do.
7. Sunscreens are not recommended for infants less than six months of age. The skin at this age is especially permeable to substances applied to it. Infants have a higher surface-area to body-weight ratio than older children and adults. This results in higher concentrations of the substances entering the blood and body organs, increasing the risk of toxicity. However, if no other means of sun protection is available, a rare event, an appropriate sunscreen is less harmful than risking a bad sunburn.
8. Sunscreens can no longer be labeled “sweat proof” and “waterproof.” All sunscreens eventually wash off. Labels can only claim “water-resistant,” and must specify whether they protect for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming, based on standard testing. Note that excessive sweating counts as time in the water. Sunscreens that are not water-resistant must state so on the label.
9. Applying the correct amount of sunscreen is difficult – and expensive. Sunscreens should be reapplied every two hours. A one-year old child wearing a skimpy bathing suit requires about two teaspoons per application. A 7-year old, about four teaspoons. Protection is also affected by wind, humidity, environmental temperature, and other factors, hence the two-hour time recommendation.
10. Additional information. Apply sunscreens liberally to areas prone to burning – ears, nose, back of the neck, and shoulders. Avoid sunscreens with fragrances as they may attract bees. Some sunscreens stain garments; “patch test” a not-seen area of the garment. Be leery of products that state “all day protection.” Sunscreens marketed for infants and young children are generally more expensive but add only minor convenience and protection. Sunscreens have expirations dates. Check labels.