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Which Sunscreens Are Safe for Your Family?



If you’ve ever tried to make sense of the polysyllabic ingredients in sunscreen products, you may have given up in confusion.

“It’s overwhelming for families,” says Marissa J. Perman, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, of trying to find the right sunscreen to use for the family.

Melissa Drake, a Chester County, PA, mom of three, agrees. “I am starting on a quest for ‘cleaner sunscreens,’ but I don’t know enough about what to avoid,” she says.

Can labels be trusted?

While it may seem comforting to find a sunscreen labeled “organic” or “natural,” in reality, the terms can be misleading. The term “natural” is not regulated by the FDA, and in chemistry, “organic” means only that the elements come from carbon, so sunscreens made with oxybenzone are actually organic, chemically speaking.

Concerns about sunscreen

“People with sensitive skin can react to many things, including the chemicals in sunscreen, the preservatives or even the base itself,” says Maria Lania-Howarth, MD, head of the department of pediatric allergy/immunology at Cooper University Health Care in Voorhees, NJ. When you try a new product, doctors recommend that you apply a small amount and check for any adverse reactions.

Some experts have voiced concerns about sunscreens that contain nanoparticles or free radicals because they fear these products could lead to skin damage or even skin cancer. However, David Vearrier, MD, MPH, program director of the Medical Toxicology Fellowship at Drexel University in Philadelphia, reassures users that none of the chemicals typically found in sunscreens is suspected to be a human carcinogen.

While aerosolized spray sunscreens are considered safe when used as directed, be sure to avoid contact of the product with the nose and eyes. Many experts worry about what could happen when children inadvertently inhale the ingredients.

“I do not like aerosolized sunscreens,” says Dr. Perman. “It’s not meant for your lungs, so I really do discourage sprays.”

Recommended sunscreens

Rather than a specific brand, most doctors recommend a certain type: mineral sunscreen. Known as physical blockers, they sit on the skin and do not get absorbed.

“I encourage patients to look at ingredients directly,” says Kelly Billig-Figura, MD, an attending physician at Concord Medicine and Pediatrics in Chadds Ford, PA. “Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide would provide the best protection,” she adds. You don’t need to buy the sunscreen with the highest SPF available, either. “Usually an SPF 15 to 30 should be plenty sufficient,” says Dr. Billig-Figura.

Despite questions raised about chemical ingredients, experts agree that families should use sunscreen. “The risk from sunburn is much greater than that from any of these chemicals,” says Dr. Vearrier. Dr. Billig-Figura agrees: “From a health perspective, we recommend using sunscreen to protect against sunburn now and skin cancer in the future.”

In the end, “If you have a question about a certain ingredient, it’s probably easy to avoid because there are so many products on the market,” says Dr. Perman.

Alternatives to sunscreen

“I can’t afford ‘organic’ or ‘clean’ lotion for all five kids. The most affordable for us has been hats and rash guards,” says Vicky Russell, a mom of five from Glenmoore, PA.

“I’m not a big believer that sunscreen is the answer,” says Catherine M. Poole, president & founder of the Melanoma International Foundation. “Using clothing rather than sunscreen as your barrier is ideal,” she adds.

To Protect against the sun without using sunscreen:

Avoid going outside midday, generally 10am to 2pm
Seek shade when outdoors
Wear clothing that covers the body (e.g., surfer swim suits)
Wear a wide-brimmed hat

Because sunscreen is not recommended for babies under 6 months old, these sun-protection methods should be used for all newborns. 

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids

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