After reading my post from last week, you know what to look for on the front of that bottle of sunscreen (click here in case you missed it). As you head out to the store to stock up on your broad spectrum, SPF 30, water resistant sunscreen before your weekend trip to the pool/beach/T-ball tournament, you happen to stumble across a headline on your Facebook news feed that reads something like “Sunscreens can be dangerous for your children.” Geeze! As a parent who is just trying to protect their child from those harmful UV rays from the sun, now you read a story proclaiming that the exact thing recommended to keep them safe, can in fact, cause them harm. What is a parent to do? Well, first let’s try to understand what these headlines are really about, and this time, we will go to the back of the sunscreen bottle.
There are two main classes of ingredients used in sunscreens- mineral and chemical filters. Mineral based sunscreens contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which provide a physical barrier on the skin to protect it from the sun’s rays…they literally make the UV rays bounce off the skin. These provide protection from both UV A and B rays. However, the downside to mineral based sunscreens is that they can be difficult to rub in which can leave not only a white film covering the skin (or hot pink or blue if you remember those zinc noses that lifeguards had in the 90’s) but also makes it difficult to get uniform coverage to all of the skin.
Chemical filters, on the other hand, are absorbed into the skin and therefore, absorb the UV rays as they hit the skin. These sunscreens can protect from both types of UV rays, but many of these products only provide one type of protection. Common chemical filters include avobenzone (UV A protection), mexoryl (UV A protection), octinoxate (UV B protection), octisalate (UV B protection), and oxybenzone (UV A and B protection) to name a few. If your child is going to have sensitivity or an allergy to an ingredient in sunscreen, it is typically going to be one of these chemical filters.
So that brings me back to the headline about sunscreens causing your child harm. Certain chemical filters, namely oxybenzone, are being called harmful as several animal studies found that this chemical could cause disruptions to hormone systems in rats. Be mindful that these studies were only done in animal models, and in fact, one of the studies that found oxybenzone caused hormone disruptions was conducted on rats who were fed sunscreen. Now, last time I checked, humans are not ingesting much sunscreen (at least not on purpose or in large amounts for those younger infants who might chew on their fingers that have a thin film of sunscreen on them). Up until this point, the studies in humans of oxybenzone show no adverse effects on estrogen hormones. In the end, the research in this area is certainly on going, so if you are worried about this chemical, know that there are MANY sunscreens available that do not contain this ingredient. Again, you just have to check the back of the sunscreen bottle to see what type of filters are in the product.
And then there is the debate about spray sunscreens. As a mom with 3 kids 4 and under who certainly do not want to sit still while I apply a lotion head to toe, spray-on sunscreen seems like a dream come true in theory. So what could be the downside? There are two potential problems that I see. First, think about the last time you used a can of spray paint and how uneven the coverage probably was with a simple once over. It often takes many “passes” to get that paint evenly distributed. The same is true with those spray sunscreens. If going too quickly, spray sunscreen can leave you with one “stripe” of good sunscreen coverage while leaving the area just next to it without any coverage. Now, this problem is an easy one to solve as long as you spray on an adequate amount of sunscreen, and then rub it all evenly into the skin.
Problem number two..spray can of sunscreen=aerosolized sunscreen ingredients=potential for inhalation into the lungs. What effect do the chemicals in sunscreens have on the lungs? That is a great question that we don’t have an answer to quite yet, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating. For older children and teens, this might not be quite as big of a concern as they can hold their breath or put a light towel over the face while having spray sunscreen applied. But for those younger kiddos, it is likely that some of that sunscreen could get into the airways. Until we know for sure if that aerosolized sunscreen will cause any issues, it may be better to just avoid it and especially in those kids with a history of asthma. If you have already purchased a can of spray-on sunscreen, no need to throw that money down the drain. Just spray the sunscreen into your hand and then rub on your child (basically, making it into an “old school” sunscreen lotion). You may lose the convenience of a spray, but you will ensure even coverage and keep any irritants out of those little lungs.
Finally, a sunscreen does not have to cost you an arm and a leg to provide adequate protection from the sun. In the July issue of Consumer Reports, 34 sunscreens were reviewed and ranked in regards to their actual protection from the sun’s rays (i.e. did they meet the proclaimed SPF) as well as price. The Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50 (which is the Walmart brand) ranked number 3 overall and cost only $0.56 per ounce. Target’s brand Up and Up Ultra Sheer SPF 30 followed close behind at number 7 on the rankings.
The bottom line when it comes to sunscreens is that there are A LOT of options available, and no matter if it is mineral vs chemical, spray vs lotion, or generic vs brand name, it is only going to work if it is used correctly! Remember, sunscreens should be applied 15-30 minutes before heading outdoors, you need about 1 teaspoon per body area, and it should be reapplied at least every 2 hours. Hopefully with these tips, you can spend your summer splashing in the pool with your kids and enjoying the sounds of your children celebrating summer rather than drying up tears because of a pesky and painful sunburn.