With vacations, days at the beach, afternoons at the park and long hours
spent in the pool, parents need to stockpile sunscreen to protect their
children during the summer months. But with so many options available
in the forms of creams, lotions, sprays and sticks, it can be challenging
figuring out what's best for your child.
"There are two kinds of sunscreens," says
Phillip Cecchini, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at
Mission Heritage Medical Group. "There are chemical sunscreens that are basically what the name
says--they use chemicals such as oxybenzone, octisalate and avobenzone
as the active ingredients. The chemicals are usually offered in various
combinations to provide broad-spectrum coverage against the ultraviolet
A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that cause sun damage. The other
kind of sunscreen is physical, which can also be called mineral sunscreen
or sunblock. The two types of active physical ingredients approved by
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for sunscreens are zinc oxide and
titanium dioxide, which can be used on their own or in combination with
each other in sunblock formulations."
One difference between chemical and physical sunscreens is that chemical
sunscreens absorb the sun's rays before causing damage to skin cells,
while physical sunscreens deflect them, bouncing the rays away from the
skin so they can't do any harm. Another difference is the feel of
the sunscreen--physical sunscreens are thicker and sit on top of the skin,
while chemical sunscreens glide on more easily and are absorbed into the
skin. But while easy application may seem like a plus for parents of children
who have little patience for putting on sunscreen, chemical sunscreens
are in fact not as safe as physical sunscreens.
According to the Environmental Working Group's annual sunscreen report,
because chemical sunscreens can be absorbed into the skin, they are more
likely to cause skin allergies and alter hormone production. "You
generally don't have those problems with physical sunblocks, which
makes them a safer option for children who have more sensitive, delicate
skin," says Dr. Cecchini. Also, while there are two FDA-approved
chemical ingredients--avobenzone and mexoryl SX--that have good rankings
from the Environmental Working Group because of their low rates of skin
absorption, they are usually combined with other, less-safe chemical ingredients.
"Physical sunscreens are the best choice for children," Dr.
When you're reading labels on physical sunscreens, you may notice the
word "nanoparticles", signifying the active ingredient has been
reduced in size so it can't be seen by the human eye. The process
makes the physical sunscreens easier to rub on the skin and reduces the
chalky white sheen titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can leave behind.
Dr. Cecchini also advises parents to check sunscreen labels for fragrances,
which can trigger an allergic reaction. "You'll want to stay
away from those, as well as sunscreens that also have an insect repellent
such as DEET. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied much more frequently than
is recommended for insect repellent." Good things parents can look
for in sunscreens are additives such as vitamins E and C and antioxidants,
which can help guard against sun damage.
As for what form your physical sunscreen takes, that can be a matter of
preference. "Some people might use a lotion for the arms and legs
and a stick for the face," Dr. Cecchini says. "Others prefer
the ease of sprays, but it's recommended that you spray the product
into your hands and rub it into your child's skin. That ensures complete
coverage and also prevents your child from inhaling the sprayed sunscreen,
which can be harmful."
Whatever form of sunscreen you select, Dr. Cecchini recommends broad-spectrum
coverage and an SPF of at least 30. "And make sure you have a lot
of it on hand--you'll want to reapply it to your child about every
two hours, and more frequently if they've been swimming or sweating.
And since each application calls for about an ounce of sunscreen, you
can go through a bottle quickly."
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical
care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.