Sun Safety: Sunscreen and Sun Protection

From the WebMD Archives

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.


Still, sunscreen isn’t enough. There are other precautions that you and your kids should take during the summer.

  • Wear broad-brimmed hats. Don’t forget to be a good model to your kids. If you keep your hat on, your kids might be more likely to do the same.
  • Keep sunscreen and lip balms in your car, in your purse, everywhere. You never know when you’ll need it.
  • Cover up with clothing to protect exposed skin. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the tighter the weave and the darker the color of a garment, the higher the SPF protection.
  • Avoid sun exposure, especially during the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are strongest. But remember that invisible rays can reflect up toward you from the ground, so you may still need protection even in shade.
  • Check the UV Index at the EPA web site (search for "sunwise") when planning outdoor activities.
  • Be aware of reflective surfaces (water, cement, and sand), as they increase your chances of getting a sunburn.
  • You can still get too much sun on a cloudy or hazy day. UV rays are strong enough to burn your skin even on cloudy days.
  • Rinse off when you come indoors or at the end of the day.
  • A child’s delicate skin, if left unprotected and exposed to the sun’s harshest rays, can be damaged in as little as 15 minutes, but it can take up to 12 hours for skin to show the full effect of sun exposure. So, if your child's skin looks "a little pink" today, it may be burned tomorrow morning. To prevent further burning, get your child out of the sun.
  • Wear sunglasses that protect against UVA and UVB rays to protect your eyes. Sun rays can also damage your eyes, potentially causing cataracts and vision loss as you age.


WebMD Feature provided in collaboration with Healthy Child Healthy World



Sonya Lunder, MPH, senior analyst, Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C.

Kate Puttgen, MD, pediatric dermatologist, Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Baltimore, MD.

American Academy of Dermatology web site, “Facts about Sunscreens.”

© 2009 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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