Dear Mr. Dad: I thought I was doing the right thing by slathering my 1-year-old with sunscreen when we go outside, but I just read that the chemicals in sunscreen could be more harmful than the sun. Now what are we supposed to do?
A: For years, we’ve been programmed to practically marinate our kids in sunscreen before sending them outside. But recently, the effectiveness — and safety — of that strategy is in question.
Before we get to the actual ingredients of sunscreen, let’s talk about the vocabulary, which can often be contradictory, confusing or both. In June 2011, the Food and Drug Administration tried to deal with this problem by coming up with new regulations for labeling, including requiring a “drug facts” box, forbidding claims such as “sunblock” or “waterproof,” and clarifying which products can be labeled “broad spectrum” (meaning that they protect against both UVB and the more deadly UVA rays). Unfortunately, these requirements don’t go into effect until summer 2012.
In a 2010 study, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog, reported that only 39 of the 500 sunscreen products they examined were safe and effective. The study claims sunscreens flaunt false SPF ratings, that one common ingredient, oxybenzone, is a hormone-disrupting chemical that can affect puberty, and another, retinyl palmitate (a derivative of Vitamin A), could accelerate some cancers instead of preventing them. But the emphasis needs to be on the word “could” as the research is hardly definitive.
The American Academy of Dermatology, for example, maintains that sunscreens — even those with oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate — are safe for most people over the age of 6 months. The American Academy of Pediatrics, ir AAP, agrees, but recommends that babies under six months be kept out of direct sunlight and shouldn’t wear sunscreen except on small areas, such as their hands. For babies over 6 months, the AAP recommends sunscreen but says the best protection is limiting sun exposure — especially around midday — and wearing protective clothing, including a hat.
If you’re concerned about sunscreen chemicals, look for “chemical-free” or “mineral-based” brands that don’t contain oxybenzone.
These mainly use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredient, both of which form an actual barrier on the skin without being absorbed and start working immediately upon application.
But don’t go overboard. In small doses, the sun is actually healthy. If you’re going to be out in the sun for a few hours, you and your children need protection; if you’re just running around for 10 minutes, you should be OK, but check with your pediatrician.
Here’s how to protect babies and toddlers from the sun:
- Limit exposure to direct sunlight, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when rays are strongest.
- Use protective lightweight clothing to cover up, including a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. If they pull them off, keep putting them back on.
- If you’re not using zinc or titanium blocks, apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside so it has plenty of time to get absorbed into the skin. But regardless of the type of sunscreen, reapply every two hours or after swimming. No sunscreen is completely waterproof.
- Don’t fear the sun.
Armin Brott is the author of “The Military Father: A Hands-on Guide for Deployed Dads” and “The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be.” Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.mrdad.com.