Nice weather is approaching and soon you’ll be at your local store staring down an abundance of sunscreen products trying to figure out which one to buy.
What SPF is needed? What is broad-spectrum protection? Are these scientific-sounding ingredients safe?
The FDA is putting new sunscreen guidelines into place this summer and they’ll help address some of the confusion by adding a star-based rating system to help you choose the sunscreens with the most protection.
As a parent, there are 3 key things to understand when choosing sun protection:
- All the ways you can protect your skin from sun exposure.
- Getting protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
- Buying a protective sunscreen and safely using it.
Start with prevention
Your infant’s skin is 20% thinner than your skin, which means it dries out and sunburns easier. Babies 6 months old and younger don’t yet have protective melanin in their skin and can burn easily. Sunburns in the early part of life are a leading risk factor for skin cancer.
You may be surprised to learn that skin cancer is 5 times more common than breast or prostate cancer, and experts agree that severe sunburns during childhood are the greatest risks for developing melanoma—skin cancer. Protecting baby’s skin and teaching her to use sunscreen is one of the most important health habits you can give her.
UVB vs. UVA rays
The sun emits both UVB and UVA radiation. Traditional SPF ratings on sunscreen products only address protecting from the rays that cause sunburn—UVB rays. However, UVA radiation is also dangerous because it contributes to premature aging and the most dangerous forms of skin cancer.
The FDA is requiring sunscreen manufacturers to apply ratings of 1 to 4 stars, with 4 providing the greatest protection, to help you choose a safe sunscreen that has the broadest protection. Sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB rays will be labeled as “broad spectrum.”
Use sunscreen safely
Always apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before sun exposure. Most people don’t apply enough, so cover your skin liberally to prevent sunburn and free radical production that comes from sun exposure, which can prematurely age skin. Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours when outdoors; reapply more often if you’re getting in the water or sweating a lot.
Protect Baby's Skin in the Sun
Most experts agree it’s best to keep babies up to age 6 months out of direct sunlight for prolonged periods of time. When clothing and shade aren’t enough, add a safe sunscreen on small areas of the body, such as the face and backs of the hands, say experts at the AAP. Don’t apply sunscreen near baby’s eyes.
Buy A Good Sunscreen
Lotion or stick? Spray or powder? Sheer or waterproof? There are lots of choices when it comes to sunscreens. Most people buy on SPF factor alone—and the higher the better, they assume. Yet experts agree that anything more than SPF 50 may not actually provide extra protection. Buy wise:
- Always read the label—not just the advertising language on the package’s front.
- Choose one with the fewest ingredients possible—mineral-based sunscreens are the safest and are easy to find.
- Pick a lotion—sprays and powders can be unsafe.
- Use a minimal SPF from 15 to 50; there’s no evidence that anything higher than SPF 50 adds extra protection.
- Choose SPF 30 to 50 for beach play, swimming and outdoor activities.
- Choose “broad spectrum protection” to minimize both UVA and UVB rays.
- Check the product’s water resistance—no product is really waterproof.
- Research safer choices online at the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database at www.ewg.org or download their free Sunscreen Buyer’s Guide iPhone app from iTunes.
- For the broadest protection possible, look for the new UVA “star” rating system on sunscreen labels.The more stars the better.
Kim Wilschek, RN, CCE, is the owner of Chicago Pregnancy & Chicago CPR, and a childbirth educator at Edward Hospital and Swedish Covenant Hospital, in Illinois.