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Sun Safety: Sunscreen and Sun Protection

WebMD Feature provided in collaboration with Healthy Child Healthy World

Getting through the summer will involve sunscreen -- lots and lots of it. But as you smear it onto your kids, you may have some qualms. What is really in this stuff? Is it safe? Are there chemicals or toxins you should be concerned about?

The Environmental Working Group and other organizations do have concerns with some sunscreen ingredients -- especially oxybenzone. “It seems to be able to penetrate the skin and may have some hormone-like activity in the body,” Lunder says.

Some doctors and medical organizations disagree. “I recommend sunscreens with oxybenzone whole-heartedly,” says Kate Puttgen, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. “I haven’t seen any data that suggest the miniscule amount of absorption causes any risks.” The American Academy of Dermatology continues to recommend sunscreens with oxybenzone.

If you're worried about chemical exposure, there is some common ground: both sides agree that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide sunscreens are safe and effective. They’re also ideal for young children and people with sensitive skin. Although these sunscreens used to have a reputation for leaving a chalky film, new formulations are micronized so that they’re barely visible.

What else should you know about using sunscreen?

  • Check the SPF for UVB protection. The SPF number indicates how well a sunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. If you’d normally get a sunburn in 10 minutes, an SPF 15 extends that by 15 times. So you could last 150 minutes before burning. How high an SPF do you need? Puttgen recommends SPF 30 or higher.
  • Look for UVA protection. The SPF doesn’t tell the whole story – it only refers to protection against UVB rays. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays pose their own risks. So make sure the label on your sunscreen states that it has UVA, broad spectrum, or multi-spectrum protection.
  • Look for water resistance. Keep in mind that these products are not water-proof. They will still wear off. But they will last longer than typical sunscreens.
  • Reapply regularly. A few dabs in the morning will not last the whole day. Follow the directions on the bottle for reapplying – especially after you’ve been sweating or in the water.
  • Not all sunscreens work as well as they should. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested nearly 1,000 brand-name sunscreen products and concluded that 4 out of 5 either contained chemicals that could potentially pose health hazards or didn't adequately protect skin from the sun's damaging rays. You can find the results of their findings and learn which sunscreens are best by visiting Skin Deep, the EWG's cosmetic safety database.

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