Swimsuit? Check! Goggles? Check! Sunscreen? Uhh…since the mostly empty bottle from last year that was caked in food crumbs in the bottom of my diaper bag probably wasn’t going to cut it, I headed to the local drug store to stock up. Now, I always like options when I am shopping, but my goodness! Have you seen the sunscreen aisle recently? Literally hundreds of products on store shelves. In my next two posts, I will discuss the finer points of picking out a sunscreen to keep everyone in your family from getting burned this summer.
Let’s start at the beginning and understand what we are trying to protect ourselves from when we use sunscreen. Ultraviolet (UV) rays are part of the light spectrum that is emitted from the sun. Two types of UV rays, A and B, have long enough wavelengths to penetrate into the Earth’s atmosphere. UV A rays have the longest wavelength and can therefore penetrate the deepest into the skin. These rays are the ones responsible for skin aging and wrinkling related to sun damage (think UV A- Aging). UV A rays are present year round at about the same intensity throughout the day, and these rays can penetrate through clouds and even glass. UV B rays are responsible for the actual redness on the skin that is associated with sunburn (think UV B–Burn). The amount of UV B rays you are exposed to is dependent on the time of day, the time of the year, as well as your location on the Earth. Here in the US, we receive the most UV B rays from April through October from 10am-4pm daily. Studies in the past 20 years indicate that both UV A and UV B rays are responsible for skin cancers including nonmelaontic skin cancer such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma as well as melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer.
According to guidelines established in 2012 by the FDA, a sunscreen must provide both UV A and UV B protection in order to be labeled as “broad spectrum”
OK, so back to your shopping trip. What does all that jargon on the front of the sunscreen bottle mean? Here is the breakdown of what you need to look for when picking out a great sunscreen.
- Sun Protection Factor (SPF)- this refers to how much longer a person can sit in the sun before their skin will actually begin turning red. Confusing..I know! Basically, if your skin would begin turning red within 15 minutes of sun exposure without a SPF product applied, then with a SPF 30, it would take 30 times longer before the skin would begin turning red. SPF refers to a product’s ability to protect only from UV B rays, not UV A rays. I would recommend a sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher, and if you were wondering if those sunscreens with the sky-high SPFs were worth the extra money, studies show that a SPF over 50 probably doesn’t have any added protection or benefit. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a ban on marketing sunscreens as anything over SPF 50 as people get a false sense that those ultrahigh SPFs will allow them to bask in the sun’s rays longer without worrying about harmful damage to the skin.
- Broad spectrum- As we discussed above, SPF refers only to a sunscreen’s ability to protect from UV B rays. So what about those UV A rays that can be just as harmful to the skin? According to guidelines established in 2012 by the FDA, a sunscreen must provide both UV A and UV B protection in order to be labeled as “broad spectrum,” so this is a must for any sunscreen that you are going to use, in my opinion.
- What about the water?- Notice that sunscreens are no longer marketed as “waterproof” or “sweatproof.” This is another regulation put into place in 2012 as the FDA found that such claims overstated a product’s actual effectiveness. Sunscreens can now be labeled only as “water resistant” or “sweat resistant,” and they must include the amount of time that the product will provide the SPF while in the water which is generally either 40 or 80 minutes.
And above all else, reapplication every 2 hours at a minimum is key!
Now, no sunscreen whether it is broad-spectrum, SPF 30 and water resistant will work unless it is used correctly! The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends sunscreen be used on all children 6 months and older. A good rule of thumb is 1 teaspoon of sunscreen per body part- so 1 tsp for the face and neck, 1 tsp for each arm, etc. And above all else, reapplication every 2 hours at a minimum is key!
So what else can you do to prevent sunburn in children? Here are a few other recommendations to keep your kiddos protected from those UV rays:
- Wear clothing that has ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Many swimsuits as well as rash guards are all designed with UPF of at least 30. UPF indicates what fraction of ultraviolet rays can penetrate the fabric, so a rash guard with UPF 30 would mean that 1/30th of the UVA and UVB rays would reach the skin.
- Wide brimmed hats are important to protect not only the face but also the delicate skin of the scalp. Especially in little girls who may have their hair in pigtails (or “Anna hair” as it is called in our house), that exposed scalp can easily get burned.
- As I mentioned above, UV B rays are at their most intense between 10am-4pm for most parts of the US, so avoid prolonged sun exposure during these hours. I know…this is prime swimming time for most families, but try to limit lengthy exposure during this time if possible.
What if your child is under 6 months of age? Ideally, keeping them out of direct sun is best since their skin is more delicate and thinner which makes it more sensitive to the sun’s rays and can burn more easily. Be careful if they are sitting under an umbrella, say on the beach, as the sand will reflect those UV rays into the umbrella and can cause sunburn as well. If your infant is going to be in the sun, light-weight protective clothing including a nice wide-brimmed hat will help to protect their delicate skin. In the end, if babies will be in the sun and protective clothing isn’t an option (such as for the face), then a small amount of sunscreen is ok.
Finally, make sure and check the expiration date on that bottle of sunscreen (I know I am guilty of pulling whatever sunscreen bottle might be left in last year’s beach bag…sand included). The effectiveness of a sunscreen will diminish once it has “expired.” Stay tuned for the second part in the Sunscreen 101 series where I will be talking about a few “hot topics” when it comes to sunscreen products (who knew that there could be controversy when it comes to sunscreen)!