Sun Safety: Sunscreen and Sun Protection

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 inthis stuff? Is it safe? Are there chemicals or toxins you should be concernedabout?

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

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

If you're worried about chemical exposure, there is some common ground: bothsides agree that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide sunscreens are safe andeffective. They’re also ideal for young children and people with sensitiveskin. Although these sunscreens used to have a reputation for leaving a chalkyfilm, 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 asunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. If you’d normally get asunburn in 10 minutes, an SPF 15 extends that by 15 times. So you could last150 minutes before burning. How high an SPF do you need? Puttgen recommends SPF30 or higher.
  • Look for UVA protection. The SPF doesn’t tell the whole story – it onlyrefers to protection against UVB rays. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays pose their ownrisks. So make sure the label on your sunscreen states that it has UVA, broadspectrum, or multi-spectrum protection.
  • Look for water resistance. Keep in mind that these products are notwater-proof. They will still wear off. But they will last longer than typicalsunscreens.
  • 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’vebeen sweating or in the water.
  • Not all sunscreens work as well as they should. The Environmental WorkingGroup (EWG) tested nearly 1,000 brand-name sunscreen products and concludedthat 4 out of 5 either contained chemicals that could potentially pose healthhazards or didn't adequately protect skin from the sun's damaging rays. You canfind the results of their findings and learn which sunscreens are best byvisiting Skin Deep, the EWG's cosmetic safety database.

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

  • Wear broad-brimmed hats. Don’t forget to be a good model to your kids. Ifyou 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. Younever know when you’ll need it.
  • Cover up with clothing to protect exposed skin. According to the SkinCancer 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., whenUV rays are strongest. But remember that invisible rays can reflect up towardyou 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 planningoutdoor activities.
  • Be aware of reflective surfaces (water, cement, and sand), as they increaseyour chances of getting a sunburn.
  • You can still get too much sun on a cloudy or hazy day. UV rays are strongenough 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’sharshest rays, can be damaged in as little as 15 minutes, but it can take up to12 hours for skin to show the full effect of sun exposure. So, if your child'sskin looks "a little pink" today, it may be burned tomorrow morning. To preventfurther 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 visionloss as you age.


Show Sources


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.”

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