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Wisconsin Parent

Simplifying Sunscreen

Jul 01, 2014 09:35AM ● By Diane Schwartz
When I was a kid, we slathered on baby oil and cooked in the sun. When Coppertone arrived on the scene in the 1970s, we used it sparingly, and life guards dabbed Zinc Oxide on their noses. Now, you walk into Walgreens and are faced with an entire wall of sunscreens. What’s a parent to do? This article attempts to simplify sunscreens and help you select the best one for you.

  1. Know thy Skin: Some kids burn and some don’t. If you have fair-skinned kids, stick to higher SPFs of 30-50. If your kids tend to tan, then you can get away with a lower SPF.
  2.  A Little Dab Won't Do: Sunscreens are good, but you have to use them and you have to use enough. Experts say that you need two tablespoons of sunscreen to cover your body and the SPF rates listed on the jar are based on applying that much. Since most people use less than half of this amount, you need to keep that in mind when applying.
  3. Sunscreen is Not Waterproof: This may seem obvious, but you have to reapply after swimming. Water resistant is not water proof.
  4.  Sunscreen Doesn’t Block all the Sun’s Rays: Many people think they will not burn when wearing sunscreen, but remember that sunscreens only block about 97 percent of the rays.
  5. Clothing is the Best Sunscreen: With ongoing concern about chemical additives in sunscreens, clothing is really the best way to go. Swim shirts are becoming more popular and more stylish and many brands now imbed sunscreen in their clothes. Eventually, this will wash out, so I question whether this is necessary.
  6. With SPF, Bigger is not Always Better: SPF 30-50 provides the best coverage. SFPs higher than 50 add little protection and lead to a false sense of security. What is SPF?  SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The rule of thumb is this: if your skin would normally burn after 10 minutes in the sun, applying an SPF 15 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the sun without burning for approximately 150 minutes (a factor of 15 times longer), assuming of course that you apply a lot of sunscreen. That a really long time, so use common sense.
  7. Physical Sunscreens: In my day, the only people wearing zinc oxide were life guards. Today, many sunscreens contain Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide. These minerals physically block the sun’s rays from reaching your skin, hence the white film that they leave behind. Many claim that they are better because they work immediately; unlike chemical sunscreens, which need to be absorbed on the skin for about 30 minutes to be effective. Physical sunscreens tend to cost more and you need to slather it on or it will not work. Don’t be fooled. Of course, clothing and a hat make the best physical sunscreens.
  8. Nano or NonNano Particles: Okay, now we’re getting crazy, but this is what health oriented folks talk about. Turns out even physical sunscreens have their issues with some people. The “nanoparticles” of minerals that are now favored in physical sunscreens are new to our bodies and lack a safety track record. A 1996 study showed that if titanium dioxide particles are small enough, they can penetrate cells, leading to an accelerated photoreaction within the cells, generating free radicals and causing DNA damage after exposure to sunlight. So far, this is just a concern, so if you're the kind of person that wants to be super safe, stay clear of nanoparticles. Unfortunately, sunscreen manufacturers are not required to label products as nano or nonnano, so what to do?  Stick with products that are nonnano like Badger Healthy Body Care.
  9. Chemical Sunscreens: Chemical sunscreens include Avobenzone, Oxybenzone, Homosylate and Oxybenzone. Nearly half of all sunscreens contain these ingredients. They are all effective broad spectrum sunscreens that work by absorbing the sun's harmful rays. They really work. Some even add a little minerals to beef up the screening power. The FDA has deemed all of these ingredients safe for kids six months and older and adults alike, but some, especially oxybenzone, have been criticized because of it’s possible hormonal and photoallergic effects. On the other hand, chemical sunscreens are cheaper and will not leave your skin with a whitish cast. However, if you’re concerned about the long-term impact of chemicals absorbing into your skin, then stick with the physical sunscreens of the nonnano variety.
  10. How to Choose?  On a scale of things to worry about, I would rank fear of sunscreen poisoning far down the list. If you're standing at Walgreens needing sunscreen, buy a good broad spectrum sunscreen that fits your budget. Limit the chemicals and additives if you can. If you're pregnant and nursing, stick with organic products.
  11. Additives: Retinyl palmitate is a form of Vitamin A that is found in anti-aging products and many sunscreens. However, when exposed to sunlight, retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. Yikes. Many people also avoid parabens and phthalates. Parabens are a preservative that have been linked to cancer, and phthalates may also mess with your hormones.
  12. Kids vs. Regular Sunscreen: From what I can tell, kids' sunscreens typically have ingredients that make them gentle for sensitive skin. However, some honestly just change the packaging. I can see no reason, other than marketing, to have separate kids' and adult sunscreens. Buy one or the other; no need for both.
The Bottom Line:

Clothing is the best sunscreen. Swim shirts are becoming more popular and more stylish and many brands now imbed sunscreen in their clothes. As I mentioned before, this will eventually wash out, so I question whether it is a necessary expense.

Get out there and have fun. The last thing you need to worry about is sunscreen. If you’re worried, go to and look up your sunscreen, but also look at Consumer Reports and get a sunscreen that works.Hang LooseA Few Products I’ve Tried:

Ology: This is the Walgreens brand ‘natural’ sunscreen and is a mineral sunscreen that does not contain parabens or oxybenzone. At $9.99 for an 8 oz tube, that’s a deal. Just be sure to slather it on.

Badger Healthy Body Care Products: I tried the SPF 30 Active Mineral Sunscreen. It works great, but you will have to put up with the whitish hue on your skin. It also felt pasty on my skin, which I didn't like. It is organic, however, so I guess that’s a good thing—just don’t eat it.

Goddess Garden Organics, Sunny Kids: This mineral product does not leave a whitish hue when applied and is mostly organic. Packaging does not mention nanoparticles, but the clerk where I tried it said that it likely contains smaller particles, otherwise, it would leave more white on the skin. I have not tested this on the beach. Since it’s a mineral product, be sure to apply liberally. Pricey at $15.58 for a 6 oz tube.

Up and Up Kids Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 by Target: This sunscreen combines physical and chemical sunscreens. I used it while swimming on a hot sunny day at Devil’s Lake and it held up pretty well. It leaves some white on the skin, but not too bad. No parabens or oxybenzone. Consumer Reports loves this sunscreen, but because of the chemicals, the Environmental Working Group, does not. Alas. I am still going to use it because it works and has fewer chemicals than other sunscreens. The risk is minimal in my opinion. Overall, a great deal at $10 for 10 oz.