Here’s the dilemma. You want your child to enjoy being outside in the sunshine without the risks associated with sunburn, like an increased risk of melanoma. Figuring out what to do can be confusing but it’s important: Approximately 25 percent of lifetime sun exposure happens before age 18.
The Food and Drug Administration recently announced new requirements for over-the-counter sunscreen products in the U.S. that hopefully will eliminate some of the confusion. Under the regulations, which go into effect in a year, sunscreens will have to protect against both UVB rays (which cause burning) and UVA rays (which cause wrinkles). Both UVB and UVA cause cancer. Only sunscreens that have an SPF of 15 or higher will be allowed to claim that they prevent sunburn and reduce the risks of early skin aging and skin cancer. Manufacturers won’t be allowed to claim that their products are sweat proof or waterproof, either; depending on test results, they’ll only be allowed to state the amount of time the product is water resistant. (See our latest report on sunscreens.)
It’s important that you protect your child against the sun. You need to use sunscreen, but you also you need to understand that there are other ways to provide protection:
• Covering up as much as possible is the best defense, according to the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and EPA. Wear clothing that’s tightly woven and can’t be seen through. Children should wear a hat with a three-inch brim or a forward-facing bill. Sunglasses are a good idea, too—they should offer 97-100 percent protection against both UVA and UVB rays
• Try to avoid sun exposure during peak mid-day hours or times when you’re getting maximum UV radiation (10 AM-4 PM)
• Check the local UVA index, using your zip code, as you make your decision about spending time in the sun.
• Assess the risk to you and your family. If you’re fair skinned with light eyes, you’re at higher risk than someone with darker skin (although people with darker skin are also at risk). If there’s a family history of skin cancer, you should be cautious about your sun exposure.
• Spray sunscreens should not be used on or by children, so that they don’t end up breathing it in or getting sunscreen in their mouth. If you don’t have an alternative, spray into your hands and wipe the sunscreen on your child.
• When you are in the sun, apply sunscreen on exposed areas and reapply at least every two hours, or according to product directions for optimum protection. The FDA recommends applying every one and a half to two hours.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents keep babies under the age of six months out of the sun. When that isn’t possible, prevent sun exposure by dressing the baby in lightweight long pants, long-sleeved shirts and brimmed hats that shade the neck. You can apply a minimal amount of sunscreen with at least 15 SPF to small areas, like the baby’s face and the back of the hands.
“Parents may use sunscreen in small areas of the body but be cautious about applying,” said Dr. Sophie J. Balk, an attending pediatrician at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in the Bronx, New York. Avoid getting sunscreens on her hands, arms, or any part of the body that she can reach with her mouth.
With older children, it’s important that they understand the need to protect themselves against sunburn by wearing tightly woven hats and clothing and applying sunscreen to skin exposed to the sun. Be sure to pack extra tee-shirts for beach excursions, as wet tee shirts aren’t as protective against UV exposure as dry ones Teenagers should be cautioned about the risks associated with using tanning salons.
It’s a good idea to be sure that your children take showers or baths after a day at the beach to wash off the remaining sunscreen on the skin.
It’s unclear how much sunscreen is absorbed through the skin by developing children. There are 15 organic chemical sunscreen ingredients that are FDA approved as well as two FDA approved sunscreen ingredients that are inorganic physical sunscreens: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which protect against UVB and UVA rays.
Be aware that some ingredients used in sunscreen have shown harm in animal studies. But the benefits of preventing the known risks from skin cancer override the less understood risks of these ingredients. There are scientific disagreements on the safety of some of these ingredients. Consumers Union is concerned that all sunscreen contains ingredients that have shown harm in animal studies. The AAP specifically suggests that parents avoid oxybenzone, one of the organic chemical sunscreens. Both CU and the AAP have concerns that ingredients such as nano-sized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide might be linked to developmental and reproductive problems. Consumer Reports recommends that pregnant women may want to avoid retinyl palmitate, which have been associated with a risk of birth defects in people who use acne medicines containing them.
Consumers Reports recommends that people choose a sunscreen based on our performance Ratings (available to subscribers) since we have learned that the entire product affects how well it will protect you from the sun.
Dr. Balk also explained that parents should be aware that selecting a sunscreen with the highest SPF factor may not necessarily offer the protection they think. “Nobody’s getting the SPF they think because most people do not apply enough sunscreen,” she said. “People think if they use an SPF 30 instead of 15 they’re getting twice the protection but the difference is actually much less.” Consumers Union recommends that a sunscreen of at least 30 be used and re-applied every two hours. Higher SPF products do provide some greater protection as long as they’re properly applied.
The bottom line is that sunscreen should be used as part of an overall program of sun protection. “We do not want children to sunburn because sun-burning is painful and raises skin cancer risk,” said Dr. Balk.
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