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Choosing a Sunscreen: What’s Right for your Family?

As parents, we all do the best we can to keep our children safe. Recently, while standing in front of roughly 8,000 different sunscreens in the store, I became paralyzed by indecision. I was sure they would all protect us from sunburns, but which one was really the safest?  Two summers ago, a friend had recommended one to me for my daughters sensitive skin, so I bought it, used it and stuck with it. It seemed to be working fine. But as I stood there and looked at all the variety, it made me wonder – what am I actually putting on her skin?

Fundamentally, you can break sunscreens down into two categories, Mineral based or Chemical based. Whichever one you choose, you want to make sure it’s labeled ‘Broad Spectrum’, which means it is protective against both types of the sun’s radiation, UVA and UVB.

Mineral based sunscreens contain one of two active ingredients, Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide. They are minimally absorbed by the top layer of your skin, and work by creating a protective barrier that deflects the sun’s harmful rays. These formulas are generally much better tolerated by sensitive or blemish prone skin, and much less likely to cause an allergic reaction. They begin working as soon as you apply them, but they can be thicker and more difficult to apply, especially on squirmy toddlers. They oftentimes require more frequent reapplications because they sit on the skin, and can leave a white film behind after putting them on.

Chemical sunscreens protect against the sun through a combination of two or more different active ingredients. The most commonly used ones are almost impossible to pronounce, but here goes: oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, and octisalate. They are also absorbed by the top layers of your skin, and work in two ways. They deflect some of the harmful rays, and convert the ones that do reach our skin into harmless heat energy. Chemical sunscreens are easily applied and absorbed, and leave almost no residue on our skin. Because of this, they are generally more water resistant, and require less frequent applications, which is definitely better for parents (again with the squirming toddlers). However, chemical sunscreens are generally more likely to cause dermatitis or allergic reactions. 

There is also a fair amount of controversy regarding the use of oxybenzone, which you can read about here , but the American Academy of Dermatology maintains that no data shows that oxybenzone causes causes hormonal problems, or any significant health problems in humans.

All of the sunscreens mentioned above are FDA approved for use in children over the age of six months. They recommend infants should be protected from the sun with other methods like hats, reflective clothing, or by simply by limiting their exposure. They offer a lot of great information, about sunscreens and general sun safety – with some of the highlights being:

  • Limit time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most intense. 
  • Wear clothing to cover skin exposed to the sun, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses, and broad-brimmed hats.
  • Use broad spectrum sunscreens with SPF values of 15 or higher regularly and as directed.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, and more often if you’re sweating or jumping in and out of the water.

You can view the full list of their guidelines here, 

I encourage you to do your own research before you make sun protection decisions for your family. Here are some resources I found that were really helpful, let me know what your thoughts are below! 

The Trouble With Ingredients in Sunscreens – Environmental Working Group

Is Sunscreen Safe?- American Academy of Dermatology

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