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. Cecchini says.
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."
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.