Now that summer has your kids outside in the sun, covering them with sunscreen is a must. Only as anyone who's ever stared at the wall of options at a drugstore knows, choosing which one is safe for children is tricky. For starters, know this: While certain labels may scream "sunscreen for kids," there is no such thing as a product designed specifically for your little ones. "That's just marketing," says Fayne Frey, M.D., a dermatologist and founder of FryFace.com, a site that helps consumers select the right skin care products. A smarter way to make your choice is to take a close look at the label. Here are a few key words to keep an eye out for, and what they really mean.
Look for titanium or zinc oxide. Often touted on the label as "minerals," these are the only two active ingredients approved by the FDA that actually block the sun's rays, much like a shirt (thus the term "sunblock"). In the absence of these ingredients, you've got a "chemical" sunscreen with active ingredients like avobenzone and homosalate that absorb the sun's rays before they can damage the skin. While chemical sunscreens work, these ingredients do have a high allergy potential, which is why physical sunscreens are preferable for kids and adults with sensitive skin.
An SPF of 30 is fine—really. As moms, we want to slather our kids with the highest SPF possible to protect them, but according to Frey, there's no need to go nuts when it comes to numbers. "An SPF of 30 protects against 97 percent of the sun's rays," says Frey. "An SPF of 50 protects against 98 percent, SPF 100 against 99 percent." In other words, the protection you get increases very minimally as you increase the SPF, which is why most dermatologists say an SPF of 30 will adequately protect kids against sunburns and signs of aging. "Anything above that is statistically insignificant," says Frey.
Look for the words "broad spectrum." There are actually two kinds of ultraviolet light to worry about: UVA and UVB. In the past, people only worried about UVB, which are shorter, more intense waves long known to tan and age the skin. Yet experts now say we should also protect against longer, less intense UVA rays, which can penetrate deeper into the skin than UVB. "Research now shows that both UVA and UVB can cause tanning and aging," says Frey. The way to make sure you're covered is a "broad spectrum" sunscreen, which means it shields your skin against both. On the active ingredients list, you'll ideally want to see avobenzone, which protects against wavelengths of 340 to 400 nanometers; it's often paired with Mexoryl SX, which covers wavelengths of 320 to 340 nanometers.
Know there's no such thing as "waterproof." For kids, summer means pools, beaches, and sprinklers, which means many moms may wonder what's the deal with waterproof sunscreen. Turns out there's no such thing: At best, sunscreen can be "water resistant" for one of two time periods tested by the FDA: 40 and 80 minutes. That means that the sunscreen will work for that time period submerged underwater. Sprinklers may give you a bit more wiggle room, but don't test your luck too much, and keep in mind that sweating can wash away this protective layer too.
Keep an eye out for certain chemicals. According to the Environmental Working Group's sun safety site, parents should steer clear of sunscreens with certain chemicals. One is retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A with anti-aging effects. But on sun-exposed skin, it may actually cause cancer, with some studies finding it may speed the development of tumors. Others worth avoiding for kids due to their high allergy potential are paba (also known as amino benzoic acid) and fragrances of any sort. Another ingredient that's causing concern are phthlates, which have been shown to disrupt hormonal systems in high amounts, and parabens, which studies have linked to cancer.
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Know that sprays can be dangerous. While spray sunscreens are tempting to use with squirmy kids, the FDA recently announced that parents should avoid spray sunscreens on kids since they may accidentally inhale the ingredients. If that's all you have handy, spray it in your hands before rubbing onto the body.
Keep in mind, of course, that sunscreen only works as well as the label says if it's used correctly and re-applied frequently. "It's also our third defense mechanism," says Frey. "The first defense is shade, the second protective clothing."
What sunscreen do you consider safest for your kids and why? Are there any ingredients you avoid?
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