Sun Safety Tips: Advice About SPF Sunscreens, Oxybenzone, and UV Index

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Getting through the summer will involve sunscreen — lots and lots of it.
But as you smear it onto your kids, you may have some qualms. What is really in
this stuff? Is it safe? Are there chemicals or toxins you should be concerned
about?

The Environmental Working Group and other organizations do have concerns
with some sunscreen ingredients — especially oxybenzone. “It seems to be able
to penetrate the skin and may have some hormone-like activity in the body,”
Lunder says.

Some doctors and medical organizations disagree. “I recommend sunscreens
with oxybenzone whole-heartedly,” says Kate Puttgen, MD, a pediatric
dermatologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. “I haven’t seen
any data that suggest the miniscule amount of absorption causes any risks.” The
American Academy of Dermatology continues to recommend sunscreens with
oxybenzone.

If you’re worried about chemical exposure, there is some common ground: both
sides agree that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide sunscreens are safe and
effective. They’re also ideal for young children and people with sensitive
skin. Although these sunscreens used to have a reputation for leaving a chalky
film, new formulations are micronized so that they’re barely visible.

What else should you know about using sunscreen?

  • Check the SPF for UVB protection. The SPF number indicates how well a
    sunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. If you’d normally get a
    sunburn in 10 minutes, an SPF 15 extends that by 15 times. So you could last
    150 minutes before burning. How high an SPF do you need? Puttgen recommends SPF
    30 or higher.
  • Look for UVA protection. The SPF doesn’t tell the whole story – it only
    refers to protection against UVB rays. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays pose their own
    risks. So make sure the label on your sunscreen states that it has UVA, broad
    spectrum, or multi-spectrum protection.
  • Look for water resistance. Keep in mind that these products are not
    water-proof. They will still wear off. But they will last longer than typical
    sunscreens.
  • Reapply regularly. A few dabs in the morning will not last the whole day.
    Follow the directions on the bottle for reapplying – especially after you’ve
    been sweating or in the water.
  • Not all sunscreens work as well as they should. The Environmental Working
    Group (EWG) tested nearly 1,000 brand-name sunscreen products and concluded
    that 4 out of 5 either contained chemicals that could potentially pose health
    hazards or didn’t adequately protect skin from the sun’s damaging rays. You can
    find the results of their findings and learn which sunscreens are best by
    visiting Skin Deep, the EWG’s cosmetic safety database.

Still, sunscreen isn’t enough. There are other precautions that you and your
kids should take during the summer.

  • Wear broad-brimmed hats. Don’t forget to be a good model to your kids. If
    you keep your hat on, your kids might be more likely to do the same.
  • Keep sunscreen and lip balms in your car, in your purse, everywhere. You
    never know when you’ll need it.
  • Cover up with clothing to protect exposed skin. According to the Skin
    Cancer Foundation, the tighter the weave and the darker the color of a garment,
    the higher the SPF protection.
  • Avoid sun exposure, especially during the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when
    UV rays are strongest. But remember that invisible rays can reflect up toward
    you from the ground, so you may still need protection even in shade.
  • Check the UV Index at the EPA web site (search for “sunwise”) when planning
    outdoor activities.
  • Be aware of reflective surfaces (water, cement, and sand), as they increase
    your chances of getting a sunburn.
  • You can still get too much sun on a cloudy or hazy day. UV rays are strong
    enough to burn your skin even on cloudy days.
  • Rinse off when you come indoors or at the end of the day.
  • A child’s delicate skin, if left unprotected and exposed to the sun’s
    harshest rays, can be damaged in as little as 15 minutes, but it can take up to
    12 hours for skin to show the full effect of sun exposure. So, if your child’s
    skin looks “a little pink” today, it may be burned tomorrow morning. To prevent
    further burning, get your child out of the sun.
  • Wear sunglasses that protect against UVA and UVB rays to protect your eyes.
    Sun rays can also damage your eyes, potentially causing cataracts and vision
    loss as you age.