It’s hard to know what’s right when it comes to sunscreen. Dermatologists chide you if you aren’t wearing it every second you’re outside. Yet some health experts suggest that we’re all vitamin D deficient because we’re effectively sun-blocking ourselves out of the natural vitamin D absorption that happens from sunshine. And now, the latest from the FDA is that we absorb the chemicals that are in sunblock products directly into our bloodstream. So what’s a parent to do? Here are answers to commonly asked questions about sunscreen and kids.
How does sunscreen work?
Typical lotion-style sunscreen works in one of two ways. They either contain chemical agents that act as the barrier to the sun or they contain minerals that do the job.
Chemical sunscreen ingredients:
Chemical ingredients are typically oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. We’re going to cut to the chase, we don’t like any of these chemicals and don’t use them on our kids.
Mineral sunscreen ingredients:
The two minerals that you might see as an active ingredient in sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium oxide. The trouble with these minerals is that they don’t rub in very well and leave white filmy residue on the skin (really only a vanity issue). To fix this, some folks came up with nanoparticle versions but for a variety of reasons these aren’t as safe. The Environmental Working Group has superb and in-depth reporting on these issues.
What is the safest type of sunscreen (chemical or mineral) to use on my child?
The safest, most natural active ingredient to look for is non-nano, uncoated zinc oxide. The consensus is that zinc is superior to titanium because it does a better job protecting from the sun’s UVA rays. Zinc does a terrific job blocking the sun's harmful rays. The chemical sunscreen agents get absorbed into the body and there is evidence that several of the most common types, like oxybenzone, are harmful to health.
A note about sunscreens that state on their label that they're made with zinc oxide and are safe for babies... Many of these brands use nano zinc oxide (a few examples are Aveeno Baby and Neutrogena Baby), which is not what we're recommending you use. Unless a brand specifies that it's "non-nano zinc oxide", assume it's the latter.
What’s the new 2019 FDA research say about sunscreen?
You may have heard a buzz about new research recently published from the FDA that reports that the chemical ingredients in sunscreen products are being absorbed into the body’s bloodstream within one day of using them. It’s true. This is real news. While the FDA isn’t saying these chemicals are bad, they’re also saying they haven’t done any research on whether they’re harmful.
Are spray-on sunscreens safe for babies and kids?
No. First, by spraying the contents into the air we are all at risk of inhaling the contents and for this reason it’s best practice not to use them around kids at all. Secondly, there is evidence that suggests that they’re not actually effective because you can’t apply them thick enough to effectively protect from the sun. We're only just now really starting to learn about some of the harmful effects of the chemical sunscreens and spraying them into the air we breathe is just giving them another avenue into your body. Additionally, most of these products are made with oxybenzone and other chemical ingredients. Unfortunately, many brands that are thought to be "natural" use these ingredients in their products that are specified as being formulated for kids (an example is Alba Botanica's 50SPF spray sunscreen for kids).
What specific ingredients should I avoid?
If the active ingredients include anything other than “non-nano zinc oxide”, we avoid use. The ingredients that we are most alarmed about are oxybenzone (chemical sunblocking agent) and vitamin A (retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate). Oxybenzone is an endocrine disrupter (i.e. messes with your hormones) and the Environmental Working Group also recommends that pregnant and breastfeeding mothers avoid it. Vitmain A is often added to sunscreen but there is research that suggests that it can act as a cancer-causing agent when it comes into contact with sunlight on the skin.
Should we be using sunscreen at all?
There is a lot of chatter about whether we should be wearing sunscreen at all. Spending ALL day outdoors with no skin protection (i.e. clothing or sunscreen) is not a good idea. However, we also don’t think it’s necessary to slather your kids up every time they leave the house. Exposure to the sun is one of the best and most natural ways to produce vitamin D in the body. Kids should have some exposure and those intermittent moments outdoors are a great way to ensure that happens. Keeping your children covered with a hat, clothing and or applying a mineral based sunscreen to exposed skin if they’re outside for prolonged periods of time during those mid-day hours when the sun rays are strongest is, based on the information we have today, the best way to go.
What about vitamin D?
Allowing your children to play outside for shorter periods of time in the early morning hours, before 10am, and in the evening, after 4pm, without sunscreen is thought to be a great way for them to absorb Vitamin D naturally from the sun. Talk with your child’s pediatrician about the safest way for your child to get natural Vitamin D from the sun. Some people may live in places where it’s sunnier so it’s important to get a local read on your particular situation.
What type of sunscreen lotion do you use on your kids?
This is the question that we get asked all the time and it’s what inspired us to right this post. We use sunscreen lotion with “non-nano, uncoated zinc oxide” as the active ingredient. We prefer this over titanium oxide as zinc is thought to be safer and protect more from UVA rays. The base ingredients should be recognizable in plain English and not list “fragrance”. The cleanest versions are probably going to contain some sort of plant or seed oils, beeswax, and perhaps a few herbal extracts, and vitamin E which together creates the “lotion” vehicle for applying the zinc. We never use sprays on our children. We are not medical experts and you should speak with your child’s pediatrician about your sun protection plan.
Matta MK, Zusterzeel R, Pilli NR, et al. Effect of sunscreen application under maximal use conditions on plasma concentration of sunscreen active ingredients: a randomized clinical trial [published May 6, 2019]. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5586
Content from the Little Love Organics website and blog is not intended to be used for medical diagnosis or treatment. The information provided on this website is intended for general consumer understanding and entertainment only. The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice.