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  • Susie Csorsz Brown

Smear, schmear … to spray or to slather?

Unlike when we were all kids, heading out to play in the sun is no longer a clear-cut good idea. Now, you need to take the extra time to put on sunblock before heading out. Young and old, everyone needs to save their skin. One bad burn as a child can come back to haunt that person when they are older. So, before your kids head out, put on that spf shirt, get the hat on their heads, and get the sunblock on. The question is: do you slather it on or is spray sufficient?

I have long ago stopped beating myself up if my kids get a little bit red when we are outside. I do my best to stop it from happening (sunblock, hat, hydration, etc) but kids will be kids, and they sweat and get wet. Reapply as necessary, right, but sometimes you might miss a spot. There are SO many different types of sunblock out there now. I think you have to choose the kind your kids tolerate the best. If your kid will hold still long enough for you to properly smear them with the cream kind, good for you. Mine don’t. I can get the stick smear on their faces and necks but after that, I’ve probably got a good 15 seconds left before they bolt. I rely on the spray kind, and try to get the kind that is sweat- and water-resistant. These aren’t fool-proof, and I know I will need to reapply, but I also know that something is better than nothing.

Be sure to keep your kids hydrated, too, especially when running around in the heat. Water is best, or diluted juice. Kids sweat; it’s a fact of life. They won’t stop until they are literally ready to drop. So keep the water coming, and if you can, put it in a bottle they can take with them. (Although the cup, once empty, may turn into a container for something else. At our house, they inevitably end up in the sand box or holding a bug collection of some sort.)

My kids tolerate hats much better than I do; I cannot stand to have anything on my head. Let your kids help you pick a favorite character or logo, and try to convince them that the kind of hat that covers the back of their neck, too, is very cool. (My eldest has a hat he calls his ‘cowboy’ hat, and we’ve had many battles over who gets to wear the cool hat. This hat once-upon-a-time belonged to my hubby but he has long since relinquished his ownership). Physical barriers work against sunburn, friends. Sunshirts and clothing with spf are a good thing. Remember, though, that while most clothing offers some spf protection, once they are wet or become threadbare, their protection diminishes greatly. The best protection is shade, though, and perhaps this is where you should be when the sun’s rays are at their peak (between 1000 and 1500).

Couple of things to remember about sunblock:

1. The SPFs of your various lotions, creams, and such don’t add up like a normal math equation. If you are using a 15 spf face cream and put on a 30 spf sunblock, it does not = 45 spf. There is some complicated formula whereby they figure these things (has to do with each individual’s skin’s tolerance for the solar rays as well as the intensity of the rays and what the lotion/spray is absorbing or repelling. See #6 for more on that). The dermatology experts generally recommend using an spf of 30; there is little value in going higher than that (e.g an spf of 50 gives you 99% protection from UV rays while a 30 spf will give you 97%).

2. Little known fact: Sunblock actually absorbs the radiation from the sun. Well, some do anyway. There are really two types; check your terminology. You can get sunblock that works by simply being a physical barrier, reflecting the light away from you. That's how products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the active ingredients work. These types of sunblocks work in a manner that make them thick and goopy, and active as soon as they are on your skin. (FYI, there is some disagreement amongst those in the know about the methodology of how these sunblocks work.)

Every other sort of sunblock –e.g. sunscreens—are large molecules that mimic natural melanin by absorbing energy from the light, rather than blocking it. These are the sorts that must be applied early and absorbed in order to be fully effective.

3. Using the RIGHT AMOUNT of a sunblock is requisite to acquire the stated spf. For adults, this is 1 teaspoon for your face, and 1 tablespoon for your arms, legs, front and back (roughly the amount in a normal shot glass). You can obviously adjust the amounts for little bodies; I’ve read anywhere from ½ teaspoon per area of body up to 1 tsp. For sprays, this would mean spraying enough to see visible liquid on skin, and then RUBBING IT IN. Try not to forget the spots that are often overlooked: lips, ears, scalps, necks, tops of feet, and in between eyes. These spots need protection, too.

4. Sunscreens take about 5 minutes to sink in. That means it would take 20 – 30 minutes to begin working effectively. So apply it at your house BEFORE you head to the pool, beach, etc. If you are applying it once you are already in the great outdoors – especially if your child jumps in water right after application – you are not giving your skin the protection you think you are. AND a good bit of it is being washed off before the time stated on the bottle because it was not properly absorbed. Remember that the only way the sunscreen will work as stated on the label is if you follow the directions to the letter.

5. Reapply after sitting on a wet towel, swimming or sweating a lot. Sunblock washes and rubs off. The term ‘water-proof’ is no longer allowed on sunblocks from the US; there is no such thing. Water-resistance means that it will not simply wash off; that does not mean that it will last if you are continually submerged in water, especially if the water is moving (e.g. the ocean) as the waves have a ‘scrubbing’ effect.

6. Check your label: your spf doesn’t necessarily protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. Some types give better protection against one or the other. You’re looking for the term ‘broad-spectrum’ which means it will protect you from both.

7. The sun is said to cause cancer because it forms free radicals in the skin. Sunscreens and sunblocks may block that radiation, but in the process they also form free radicals, because all the energy from the sun has to go somewhere. The trick is to block more free radicals than the sun creates. Many sunscreens include natural antioxidants like Vitamin E or green tea to combat the formation of free radicals in the skin.

8. There is a lot of controversy out there for which chemicals are the best for sunblocks. In general, zinc oxide is the only ingredient that is approved for children under 6 months of age. Some other ingredients – oxybenzone in particular – are most often frowned upon. You know, sunblocks are pretty much chemical soup, so it would behoove you to take some time and do some investigations at reputable online sources to see what you are most comfortable with. The one thing that is agreed upon is that some sort of sunblock/screen is a good thing.

9. Last but not least, the vitamin D issue. You need vitamin D for healthy bones, strong immune system, cancer prevention, and cardiovascular health. Without sufficient vitamin D, you run a higher risk of heart attacks, cancers of the colon, breast, and others, obesity and hypertension, among just a few maladies. The very thing I am telling you to avoid (i.e. Mr Sun) is the best source for this vital nutrient. AND, here’s the kicker: the very mechanisms that make sunblock work blocks your body from being able to absorb and therefore synthesize vitamin D. Health issues due to vitamin D deficiencies will strike more people this year than will issues stemming from sun exposure. So what do you do? Experts say that 15 minutes of direct sun exposure is sufficient to get what you need to be able to make your daily dose of vitamin D. You need to balance the time in the sun with the risk of sunburn for your particular skin type. If it needs to be at 0800, then do it at 0800.

This is a lot to digest, I know. Sunblock isn’t something to beat yourself up about, though. Remember, your job is to do your best to keep your kids (and you!) healthy, happy and ready to have some fun. You can’t put them in a bubble. Sunburns happen. And if they do, try to get your kid in a cool bath or shower, and slather on some aloe. They will be ready to go faster than you think.

Let’s go have some fun in the sun!

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