It’s well-established that if you’re going to be out in the sun, the best way to protect yourself and your children from harmful ultraviolet radiation (in combination with limiting the time of your exposure and covering up with a long-sleeve shirt, hat and sunglasses) is to continuously apply sunscreen.
When you apply a product with SPF (Sun Protection Factor), you’re protecting the skin from UVB rays, the shorter of the UV waves that can give you a sunburn. But what about UVA protection? This is where protection gets dicey. While many sunscreens are labeled “broad spectrum,” which leads you to believe you’re getting total coverage, the actual UVA protection may be inadequate. UVA, comprised of UVA1 and UVA2 rays, can cause skin damage, aging and cancer — with no signs whatsoever. Equally as concerning, it is believed that some ingredients commonly found in chemical sunscreens (such as oxybenzone, found in 80 percent of chemical sunscreens) break down when exposed to sunlight, penetrate the skin, and can cause allergies and hormone disruption, as well as skin damage. This is particularly troubling to me as a parent. Children are not only the most vulnerable to sun damage but to the harmful effects of chemical exposure from sunscreens.
The simple fact is, not all sunscreens are created equal. Some of the most aggressively marketed and available sunscreen brands do not provide adequate protection against both UVA and UVB and/or may contain harmful chemicals. It’s important to be aware that the words “children” and “kids” placed on sunscreen labels may just be a marketing gimmick. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has shockingly low standards of regulation for sunscreen makers, although starting this summer, they’ve mandated that sunscreen packaging be straightforward about exactly what’s inside (with the percentage of active ingredients listed on the package) and how much sun protection is provided.
The Environment Working Group, a non-profit organization that specializes in research and advocacy in the area of toxic chemicals, recommends you avoid chemical sunscreens in favor of mineral ones that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, especially for children and those with sensitive skin. Non-mineral options, they warn, are more likely to contain potential hormone disruptors and less likely to protect sufficiently against harmful UVA rays. They also discourage the use of sprays and powders, to avoid inhalation dangers.
Choosing an effective sunscreen may seem overwhelming, but there are a lot of fantastic online resources to guide you toward a healthy sun safety plan. The Skin Cancer Foundation has a great list of prevention tips, Alpha Mom breaks down the science behind sunscreen and why certain sunscreen choices are better than others, and the Environmental Working Group’s 2013 Guide to Sunscreens is a database of over 1,700 sunscreens, lip balm, moisturizers, and makeup to help you research, compare, and contrast options. There’s also an iPhone App to keep handy while shopping.
To make your research even easier, we’ve rounded up EWG’s highest rated/least toxic sunscreens and cross-referenced them with Alpha Mom’s mom-tested 2012 recommendations, Amazon reviews, and my personal favorites, for a complete list of safe sunscreens to shop from. All of these sunscreens have at least an SPF of 30 and both UVA and UVB protection. In general, these formulas are more expensive than chemical ones and take more effort to rub in, but we think it’s time and money well-spent!
Once you’ve chosen the best sunscreen for your family, be sure to follow instructions for application and reapplication, and remember that sunscreen alone will not protect skin against UV rays; it is just one vital part of a complete sun protection program!
It’s also super important to remember that infants under 6 months of age should be kept out of the sun. Their skin is too sensitive for sunscreen. If you have additional questions or concerns, please contact your doctor.
Have a happy and healthy summer!