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How to choose a sunscreen for your kids

(Jamie Davis Smith)

Summer means time at the pool, hanging out in the backyard and lots of outdoor play. And with school about to let out (or did it for you already?), kids are going to be soaking up rays in general. To keep them safe from sunburn, skin damage and skin cancer, parents need to ensure that their kids wear sunscreen.

But choosing a sunscreen for children is not as easy as wandering into your local drugstore. Which SPF is right? Is a spray all right? What do all of the ingredients mean? Is my child even old enough to use sunscreen?

Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst from the Environmental Working Group says that the best way to protect yourself and your kids from harmful UV radiation it to wear protective clothing, ensure time in the shade and avoid being out at times when the sun is strongest, whenever possible. However, if you are going outside when the sun is shining, sunscreen should be an essential part of your day, and choosing the right sunscreen is important since some can do more harm than good. Lucky for us, the Environmental Working Group puts out a trusted annual guide to sunscreens to help you navigate the sunscreen aisle.

We also got more tips about sunscreen from Jack Maypole, adviser to the Goddard School and pediatrician for medically complex children at Boston Medical Center:

Spray or Lotion? 

  • The use of spray sunscreens remains controversial. Applying a spray without children inhaling the unhealthy ingredients can be difficult. Further, it can be difficult to get even, sufficient coverage with a spray.
  • Sunscreen lotions and creams provide more even coverage than sprays and tend to be absorbed less through the skin, which is what we should aim for.

Which ingredients should I avoid? 

  • Oxybenzone (a hormone disruptor) and retinal palmitate (which may in fact amplify sun damage) should be avoided.
  • The CDC recommends that families avoid the use of sunscreen products containing nanoparticles. We simply don’t know enough about their impact on children to recommend their use.

What should I look for when selecting a sunscreen?

  • Sunscreens containing the metal oxides (such as titanium or zinc) are the safest, but they may be pricey. They also add a whitish cast to the skin while applied.
  • Choose sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB rays. Look for terms like “broad spectrum” or “multi spectrum” on the label.

Which SPF should I use?

  • Use a sunscreen in the 30-50 SPF range. Anything over 50 SPF does not clearly offer any additional benefit and may be harmful. Moreover, sunscreens with SPFs over 50 probably cost more.
  • Sunscreens over 50 SPF are banned in Europe, Canada and Australia. According to the Environmental Working Group, SPFs over 50 have a higher tendency to be used improperly, do not provide as good a balance between UVA and UVB rays as lower SPF sunscreens and may pose health risks because of the higher concentration of chemicals they contain.

How much sunscreen should I use? 

  • Use sunscreen liberally, about enough to fill a shot glass. Be generous. You have to use it for it to work.
  • According to the Environmental Working Group, studies show that sunscreen users tend to use only one-fifth to one-half of the recommended amount of sunscreen.

How often should I reapply sunscreen?

  • In general, sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and after swimming or vigorous activity.
  • In spite of what labels may claim, no sunscreen is truly waterproof; all sunscreens wash off with sweating or bathing, thus diminishing their protection.

Is my child old enough to use sunscreen? 

  • Sunscreen use is recommended for children 6 months and older.
  • For babies under 6 months, experts recommend using other measures for sun protection such as keeping them in shady spots, using hats, sitting under beach umbrellas and wearing protective clothing and swimwear.

How sunny does it have to be in order to require sunscreen? 

  • As a general rule, if it’s bright enough outside that you wouldn’t need to use a flash on your camera you should be wearing sunscreen.

What if my child’s skin is sensitive?

  • According to Lunder, since some children’s skin is especially sensitive to chemical allergens, test sunscreen by applying a small amount on the inside of your child’s wrist the day before you plan to use it. If an irritation or rash develops, try another product or ask your child’s doctor to suggest a product less likely to irritate your child’s skin.

When faced with the overwhelming choice of sunscreens available, read labels, avoid products with known or suspected health effects, and check out the Environmental Working Group’s annual guide to sunscreens for guidance and information on specific brands.

Most important, no matter which sunscreen you choose, remember to slop it on early and reapply it often.

Jamie Davis Smith is a D.C. mother of four and photographer. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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