Keeping Your Family Sun Safe

It’s a rite of passage during the summer. Put on clothes, brush teeth, grab the keys and, if you are spending any time outside with your kids, make sure you have the sunscreen packed.

So yes, along with making sure your kids are eating healthy, getting enough sleep and the litany of other things parents should be doing, we must also protect them from the intense Texas sun. I don’t know about you, but there are few things that I feel as guilty about as watching my fair-skinned child walk around with a pinkish hue from not reapplying sunscreen.

As with nearly everything else that comes along with the parenting territory, unfortunately it appears that sunscreen also has to be complicated. UV-what? Waterproof? Spray, stick or lotion? This doesn’t even address the agony that can be trying to actually get the sunscreen from the container onto your child’s body.

Since I’m in my mid-thirties and my son is now in elementary school, I thought it was high time to learn what I should probably already know about sunscreen and give you the Cliff Notes version (do those even exist anymore?)

Reviewing terms
First, let’s review some important terms. Sunscreen protects us against ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can promote skin cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US, impacting over two million people each year. UVA radiation penetrates deep into the skin and leads to tanning and aging skin (cue flashbacks to childhood vacations in Florida and way-too-tan grandparent-types) while UVB rays lead to sunburns. Sunscreens that claim “broad spectrum” protection are formulated to protect us against both types of UV rays.

Then, of course, there is the ubiquitous SPF, or sun-protection factor. According to Consumer Reports, “if you sunburn after 20 minutes without sunscreen, an SPF 30 product would protect you for about 10 hours—20 minutes x 30”. But, it’s important to note that SPF works differently for different people. So if you are prone to burning, an SPF of 30 might really act more like an SPF of 10.

New labels are on the way
Now that we have the key terms out of the way, there is some good news for confused consumers (I can only assume I’m not just speaking for myself here). The good news is that the FDA is requiring new labels to be put on products that contain a sun-protection factor (SPF). The bad news is that these rules don’t go into effect under December of this year, so only some products in stores now have these new updated labels. These labels are designed to ensure that:

  • Sunscreens which claim to be broad spectrum must actually pass a new critical wavelength test for UVA protection.
  • Sunscreens will have to list the duration of their effectiveness on the front label (in the number of minutes). “Sweatproof” and “waterproof” will not be allowed on a label, since all sunscreens wash off, and all sunscreens will be labeled “reapply every two hours”.
  • Sun protection information will be detailed on the back of the container. The labeling will distinguish the benefits of the product’s UVA and UVB protection.
  • Terms such as “all day”, instant protection” and SPF above 50 will have to be proven to be listed on labels. The term “sunblock” will not be allowed, since it conveys an unrealistic expectation of what sunscreen is capable of doing.

What about now?
So, until these new rules go into effect, what are some ways to choose a sunscreen that will protect your family?

Growing up, Consumer Reports was always a trusted authority to help with our buying decisions. In May, CR updated its sunscreen ratings. In their report, their experts make the following recommendations:

  • Choose a product with an SPF of 30 or higher (with the caveat that the FDA has not found evidence that products above SPF 50 offer extra protection).
  • Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow the product to soak in.
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  • Choose water-resistant products.
  • Keep in mind that oxybenzone may interfere with our hormones, nanoscale zinc and titanium oxides have been associated with troubling reproductive and developmental effects. Products with retinyl palmitate, which converts into retinoids, have linked to birth defects, so pregnant women may want to steer clear of sunscreens with this ingredient.
  • Using a spray sunscreen may pose risks for children if inhaled, so until the FDA releases the results of its current studies, CR advises against using these products.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.
  • Avoid using sunscreen on infants under six months.

You can access the full report by subscribing to Consumerreports.org on a monthly or yearly basis.

I have also heard that we tend to not apply enough sunscreen. Sure enough, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, an adult should apply one ounce of sunscreen to generously coat all the skin that is not covered by clothing (remember, from your college days: one ounce = one shot glass). Not surprisingly, most of us only apply one-fourth to one-half of the recommended amount. Do keep in mind that you would need to scale back this amount to determine how much sunscreen you should apply on your child.

Because I worry about the impact of chemicals on myself and my family, I also consulted the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database. Skin Deep was launched in 2004 and now provides safety ratings for over 70,000 cosmetics and personal care products. Since manufacturers of these products can use almost any ingredient, Skin Deep compares ingredient lists to nearly 60 toxicity and regulatory databases to give consumers an idea of how safe these products are. Skin Deep also includes reviews of 1,800 sunscreens and SPF lip balms, released a Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens List and even has a free app to help you evaluate products on the shelf.

The EWG recommends buying products which contain zinc, titanium dioxide, avobenzone or mexoryl SX and sticking with creams over both sprays and powders. Of all of the products in the database, 75% did not meet the organization’s safety guidelines. Just buying a sunscreen at Whole Foods does not insure that you are purchasing a sunscreen that comes highly rated in Skin Deep, and many of these “natural” sunscreens can cost up to $10 more than the brands you most commonly see at the neighborhood pool.

In full disclosure, as anyone who has used natural sunscreens can attest, some of the more highly rated products are thick and so can be hard to rub in (my husband used to call me a Smurf when I shared my son’s California Baby sunscreen), but I guess my vanity went out the window after I had my son. He has gotten used to the “drill” of applying sunscreen before we head out for the pool, so (knock on wood) I have no problems with him either.

Keeping sun safe
Of course, sunscreen is only part of what can protect our kids (and ourselves) from the sun. Other tips from the FDA and the American Academy of Pediatricians include:

  • Avoid direct sun exposure for children under six months.
  • Avoid the sun from 10am-4pm, when the sun’s rays are the hottest and finding some shade.
  • Cover up, either with light-weight cotton, a hat or sun-protective clothing.
  • Protect your eyes with sunglasses with a label stating 99-100% UV protection.

I’m still grappling with the decision of what sunscreen to buy for our family. Since we only have one child and I am wary of the long-term impact of the chemicals in many sunscreens, for now I’m still comfortable putting in the extra money to purchase products I have learned about through Skin Deep. We are currently using thinksport’s sunscreen, a company based here in Austin which has a 1 rating (their ratings are based on a 1-10 scale, with one being the safest and 10 being the most hazardous).

What sunscreen works best for your family? Do you use the EWG database? How do you decide what sunscreen to use? How much does price help determine what sunscreen you choose?

Written by: Nicole Basham

About Nicole Basham 793 Articles
A native Austinite and soccer-playing mom, Nicole uses her 10-year-old son as an excuse to rediscover her hometown through his eyes. In Thoreau's words, her mission is to "suck out all the marrow of life", or in her son's words, to cultivate in him a love of "advenchers".

2 Comments on Keeping Your Family Sun Safe

  1. this is a wealth of geat info…THANK YOU. i have barely gotten skin deep (har har) into all the different things to think about when it comes to sunscreen…but something in your article is standing out to me right now…the possibility of breathing difficulties in children who are sprayed with the aerosol/pump sunscreens. my son’s been having breathing problems for a month and is now on a whole host of meds, including breathing treatments. i am now wondering if this is caused by our using spray on sunscreen on him…we’ve been scratching our heads about what in the world he could be so severely allergic to seemingly suddenly. this is something i will delve into more deeply on my own and with our pediatrician.

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