Summer Sun Safety: Choosing the Best Sunscreen for your Child

Pharmacist Abby Yancey was recently looking for some child friendly sunscreen and was quickly confronted with a variety of potentially confusing choices for what should have been an easy and straight-forward decision. She had several questions including: “What is the best sunscreen for children?” and “What’s in my kid’s sunscreen?”

As a full-time working mom, I was extremely pleased that I had purchased my kids’ sunscreen prior to the daycare email reminding us to bring it in.  Woo-hoo! I was finally ahead of the game with a double pack of Coppertone suntan spray! Then the reminder email came saying they prefer sunscreen without oxybenzone. Go figure. I bought a spray that contained oxybenzone.  Back to Target I went. I love an excuse to go to Target, but as I was in the sunscreen aisle I noticed that almost all of the sunscreens contain oxybenzone. As any mom would, I Googled it and quickly became overwhelmed with all the information out there. I ended up just buying one of the first things I saw, which was crazy expensive and it came in a ridiculously small bottle for the cost. 

I decided to put on my pharmacist cap.  It was time to give myself a primer in choosing a safe and appropriate sunscreen for my kids, and to see what is up with all the oxybenzone fuss. 

Here is a quick peek at what I found out about the controversial chemical:

  • Oxybenzone and other chemical products work by forming a thin layer on the skin surface and absorb the ultraviolet (UV) rays. Whereas physical UV filters, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, reflect UV rays away from the skin. Many sunscreens contain both chemical and physical UV blockers.
  • When Oxybenzone was approved in 1978, it was praised as a great advance because it absorbs into the skin without leaving an unappealing white paste all over the body.
  • In the past 35 years, the thinking has changed, leading some to believe oxybenzone can cause hormonal imbalance in people. Up to this point, the clinical significance of oxybenzone absorption in humans has not been established nor has any effect on hormones in humans, even with higher than normal topical doses.
  • Some estimates say over 96% of the U.S. population has been exposed to oxybenzone.

Concerns about the Spray:

  • Although the spray sunscreen sounds like a great and easy option some concerns exist including the safety of inhaling the product and applying enough to get adequate protection.
  • If you decide to use, be sure to hold the container 4 to 6 inches from the skin and rub in evenly by hand.  Do not spray directly into the face, spray on hands and then apply to face.  Make sure to only spray in well-ventilated areas and be cautious if there is a lot of wind.

Sunscreen ingredientsOther Sunscreen Advice:

  • There are two kinds of ultraviolet rays. UVA rays are responsible for premature aging, whereas UVB rays are to blame for sunburns.  The term “broad-spectrum” ensures that the product will be effective against both types of UV rays.
  • SPF signifies the protection the sunscreen will give against UVB rays. Choose a product that is at least SPF 15, but preferably 30. Studies have shown that increasing the SPF value to greater than 50 does not improve efficacy, so save your dollars.
  • Water resistant implies that the sunscreen is effective after 40 minutes in the water, whereas very water resistant is effective for up to 80 minutes.

Bottom Line:

We know that sun damage can lead to devastating cases of skin cancer. No matter your thoughts on the safety of oxybenzone, it is imperative that you protect your children and yourself from the sun.

  • Choose a “broad-spectrum” agent with at least SPF 30 protection to ensure adequate UVA and UVB coverage and protection.
  • If you are worried about the absorption of oxybenzone, consider choosing a product with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, as there is no data to show that these agents are absorbed into the body.
  • When applying sunscreen, be generous with the application. Aim for two tablespoons or a shot glass full and reapply every couple of hours.
  • If playing at the beach or in a pool, invest in a water resistant product and reapply every 40-80 minutes.
  • Consider buying UV protective clothing and eyewear. This can be extremely beneficial in younger children, as it can decrease the amount of areas that will require application. 
  • Most of all, have fun!   

About the Author:

Abby Yancey, Pharm.D., BCPS, is an associate professor of pharmacy practice at St. Louis College of Pharmacy. Her specialty is internal medicine. In addition to her teaching duties, she practices at a health center in the St. Louis area.

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