Fact or Fiction: Sun Protection for you and your family
Let me preface this by asking you to please consider how important sun protection is. I know, I say that about pretty much every topic I broach on this site, but what you do for your kids by protecting their skin, and by teaching them proper skin protection methods will save them from needless skin issues later in life: skin cancer, sure, but also discolorations, reduced skin elasticity, wrinkles and more. You can help them develop smart skin-saving skills that will help keep their largest organ safe for their whole lives. I say this having suffered now multiple spots (and painful removals) of skin cancer. Please give your kids these skills. It is very very important.
I am a sun lover. I admit it. I love being out in the open air, full sun on my face. Given a choice I will pick ‘hot-and-sunny’ every single time. The beach is my happy place. Sadly, and not without a lot of hair-pulling, after enough skin cancer spots, I have learned my lesson and I do what I can to protect my skin. Unlike when we were all kids, heading out to play in the sun is no longer a clear-cut good idea. Yes, your kids need to run, jump, move, and get their wiggles out. Yes, they need their vitamin D. Now, though, we all know that you also need to take the extra time to put on sunblock before heading out, and grab a hat while you head out the door. 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. Do it well before they go out, too, to give their skin plenty of time to absorb the SPF, especially if they will be getting into water and/or sweating a lot. And then there is the question: do you slather it on or spray, sunblock or sunscreen… Decisions, decisions. Let’s look at some of these points, and hopefully clear up some questions.
I do my best to get the kids smeared up as well as possible, though 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, sunshirt, 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. Thankfully, with today’s smart sunblocks, you can find options that make it easier to tell where you have and have not schmeared (e.g. colors that fade, etc). Listen, I am paying the price now for the umpteen times I got sunburned as a kid, so I am much more vigilant about it for my kids, but … there is ‘doing my best’ and ‘beating myself up about it’; there are so many other things I can really get worked up about.
Why is the sun so bad?
Listen, I hear you: a beautifully sunny day brings me great joy, too. I get it. The answer to the question above is complicated and nuanced, so very very briefly, when the sun’s rays hit our skin, the radiation from these rays start to negatively impact our skin cells, and unchecked, this radiation may cause changes or mutations in the skin cells. Sunscreens and sunblocks work to 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 (as a note: generally, sunblocks do not as they are designed to ‘block’ the rays and not be absorbed, and also block the sun's rays from being absorbed so deterring, hopefully, the formation of these free radicals in the first place.) Clearly, you can also add antioxidants to your skin care regime like vitamin-infused serums or lotions.
Let’s jump into some of the questions out there about sun protection creams.
Sunblock, sunscreen … it is all the same.
While most people will use the terms interchangeably, they actually provide protection for your skin in different ways. Also, some are better options if you have sensitive skin. Little known fact: Sunblock actually physically absorbs or repel the radiation from the sun. Well, some do. There are really two types of sun protection creams; 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 are often referred to as 'mineral'. 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. You can do some research but … suffice it to say, these physical barrier creams are generally regarded as the most safe for the youngest of kids.) Why? Because they are not absorbed; they create a physical barrier on the skin, providing protection. These are often harder to wash off, too, and can withstand a lot of wear and tear (read: running into and out of the waves, rolling around in the sand, playing sports, etc). These also have the added benefit of being ready to go as soon as they are applied; you do not need to wait for the lotion to be absorbed, so when you have a wriggly kid DYING to get in the water, these are a good option.
Every other sort of sunblock –e.g. sunscreens—are different types of large molecules that mimic natural melanin by absorbing energy from the light, rather than blocking it. The most common of these ‘screen’ chemicals are oxybenzone, PABA, and avobenzone among others; each work slightly differently and are often used in combinations as some absorb UVA, some UVB and others both. These are the sorts that must be applied early and be fully absorbed in order to be fully effective (read: 10- 15 minutes PRIOR to sun exposure and NOT pool-side, please. If you apply them and then immediately jump in the water, you are washing off the product before it can be absorbed greatly reducing its effectiveness and any protection it might have otherwise offered.).
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, sun protection creams and lotions 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 and works best for you and yours. The one thing that is agreed upon is that some sort of sunblock/screen is a good thing. I’ve included a link below for the various chemicals used in sunscreen. It is important to look for terms like ‘broad spectrum’ which indicates protection from both UVA and UVB. The www.skincancer.org site has a lot of useful information on the differences between the two and helpful information on what you can do to protect yourself and your family from the sun’s harmful rays without barricading yourself into your house. I get it, my happy place is outside, especially on a beach somewhere. But we have to keep our skin safe, right? Do a bit of research to see what works best for you and your family for your intended activities.
I should also mention that a few years ago my youngest had a rather severe reaction to a sunscreen (see below for expiration of your sunscreens; this happened with a tube that was one week past the date on the bottle). Even those without sensitive skin may react to these chemicals, especially as you apply and then go out and cook them into your skin once (as they are, by nature, designed to be used in the sun, right?); the heat and sun can exacerbate the reaction. So, the poor kid was covered in a red bumpy rash everywhere the sunblock had been applied and where the sun hit. Not a sunburn but a chemical reaction. It took months to clear it up. We’ve since switched him to a physical barrier-only regime and that works well for him. I found a number of options that have zinc oxide as the main ingredient and also are ‘invisible’ so he doesn’t walk around looking like a tube of Desitin exploded all over him.
What sun protection works for you as a child may not work for you as an adult.
It is important to note that your sun protection needs change as you age, with infants and children have different needs and sensitivities than do adults. Additionally, ‘incidental exposure’ (e.g. the few minutes it takes to walk from your car to the grocery store, etc) needs will be very different than when you are planning on being out in the sun for longer periods of time, especially when adding factors like water exposure, wind and activities that make you sweat. The take-home message, I guess, is that no one sun protection cream works for all members of the family for every activity. Have a variety of options on hand, and use what will work the best given the participant, the activity and the duration of time in the sun. See below for some thoughts on spray options. And, please, reapply, reapply, reapply.
SPF 30 is best, because it is easiest to find and a good value.
SPF math is complicated. The SPFs (sun protection factor) of your various lotions, creams, and such don’t add up like a normal math equation when layering them. If you are using a 15 SPF face cream and put on a 30 SPF sunblock on top of it, 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.) The dermatology experts generally recommend using an SPF of 30; there is little value in going higher than that (e.g SPF of 50 gives you 99% protection from UV rays while a 30 SPF will give you 97%). Though I did just read an article wherein the experts that be in Dermatological land have realized that most of us do not apply sufficient amounts of sunblock nor do we apply it as often as we should, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the sunblock considerably. Not only that but (again, that complicated equation) higher levels of SPF actually DOES provide greater protection from the sun’s harmful rays ESPECIALLY if we are not applying it properly. So … stay tuned, but methinks we are going to see a greater assortment of SPF 50 – 100 available soon.
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. And, as noted above, options that include 'antioxidants' are a good option, too, as they help reduce the damaging free radicals.
I just squirt a bit in my hand, rub it in and am good to go, right?
Experts agree this is our weakest link: most people do not use the correct amount of sun protecting creams. 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. Repeat: you spray and then you RUB IT IN. (Also, as a public service message: when you spray, please step away from your neighbors on the beach; no one wants to inhale spray fumes).
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. Oftentimes, the stick versions work best in these areas. Stick options are like a dense solid cream that you can easily apply; these are great options to keep in your bag, too, as you never know when you might need a touch-up when you're on the go, and a bottle of sunblock lotion might ooze all over your bag contents.
Also, repeat the application process as often as recommended on the label, especially after exposure to water, sweat, and rubbing (e.g. like with a towel. Or when you are buried in the sand.)
I bought my sunscreen last year. I think it is still fine.
It might be fine. It might also be expired. How do you tell? Well, unlike dairy products, it can be hard to tell if a sun protection cream is expired. Often, the best way to tell is to check the date stamped on the bottle. U.S. products are required to maintain their efficacy for at least three years or to have a clearly stamped expiration date. Other countries have different requirements. Check the dates, check for any notable changes (smell, color, texture, etc). Also, physical barrier sunblocks usually last longer than chemical sunscreens.
Pay attention to how you are storing your bottles. Sure, you’ll take them with you when you’re going to go out in the sun (so you can reapply reapply reapply), but when stored at home, keep them at room temperature, away from direct sunlight or high heat. Even very low temperatures can negatively effect the sunscreen’s efficacy.
Expired physical barrier sunblock is probably better than nothing, but expired chemical sunscreen might cause other skin issues.
Sunblock applied, let’s jump in! Right?
Sunscreens (the chemical absorbers, not those that create a physical barrier) take about 10 – 15 minutes to FULLY 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. Or if you have to drive to the beach, apply it in the parking lot before you start the trek across the sand. If you are applying it once you are already in the great outdoors – especially if your child jumps in water directly 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.
It bears repeating: the only way the sunscreen will work as stated on the label is if you follow the directions to the letter.
Another reason to apply prior to arriving to the beach, and allowing the appropriate amount of time for your skin to fully absorb the sunscreen is the impact that the chemicals in these creams are having on our amazing coral reefs and other water-dwelling environments. Recent studies are showing that our haste to protect our skin (especially when we do not allow enough time to absorb properly) is having negative impacts on the coral reefs, especially in areas of heavy tourist visitation. The chemicals in sunscreen impair the coral reefs’ abilities to protect itself, negatively impacting the reef, and the animals that live around it. Physical barrier sunblocks do not appear to have the same negative impact, nor do properly absorbed sunscreens. There are a number of new reef-safe options out there, but please still apply them and leave plenty of time for your skin to absorb it.
I put on my sunblock, and now am set for the whole day.
Nope. Read your bottle and it will tell you how long before you should reapply. Generally, it is recommended to reapply at least every two hours to surfaces exposed to sunlight ESPECIALLY if you’ve been in contact with water, sand, sweat, or clothing. Reapply the same amount as what you put on before.
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. Reapply, reapply, reapply.
Personal example: I did a great job applying my sunblock, wore my sun shirt, and still got a burn on my fanny when we were snorkeling recently. Even though I was very diligent about the coverage, I had been sitting in the car and then in the boat on the way to the site, and then when snorkeling, my shirt had floated up a little to reduce the coverage just below my suit. Well, needless to say, Day 2 I was much more vigilant about when and where I applied that sunblock!
Wait, I need Vitamin D, don’t I? Doesn’t the sun give me vitamin D?
Ah yes, 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 (your skin cells produce vitamin D in a complicated waterfall process). AND, here’s the kicker: the very mechanisms that make sunblock and sunscreen work ALSO 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? Get some sun, but don't do it at high noon, please! 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.
My friend told me that sunscreen sprays are best. Is that true?
I know I mentioned sprays above, too, but these are a very very common form of sun protection available. A couple of thoughts on sunscreen sprays: Know that most are created without the use of propellants and other chemicals that might be unsafe for the environment. So that is good. The other pluses of sprays are that you can get a good coverage on a wriggly kid fairly easily, but you also have to be sure to RUB IT IN. Repeat: you spray, and then you RUB IT IN. One known negative for sprays is that they are, indeed sprayed (I know, I know, but bear with me). In my opinion, it would be better to not use these on/near the face, as inhaling the sunscreen can cause issues (e.g. coughing, etc). It is easier to use this on limbs, back, etc, and then use a stick or a cream version for faces and necks. Sprays are quick, easier, and effective, though, and good options. Just be sure to follow the instructions to the letter to get the SPF indicated on the label.
Another note on sprays: please don’t be THAT person that sprays without checking to see where the wind might blow it; if you are near people, move away or upwind so those around you don’t get a face and windpipe full of sunscreen. Yes, I know I said this before, too. It is honestly one of my beach-related pet peeves.
There are SO many different types of sunblock out there now. I think you have to choose the kind you and 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 are getting much better about it. When they were younger, I could get the stick smear on their faces and necks but after that, I had 15 seconds before they bolted. I used to rely on the spray kind, and got the kind that is sweat- and water-resistant. These aren’t fool-proof, though, and I know I will need to reapply, but I also know that something is better than nothing. Now we mostly stick with an arsenal of sunscreens and sunblocks, and use what works best on the body parts in question. We also heavily rely on sun protection clothing like sun shirts and hats. See below for more on this.
Okay, got it. Sunscreen applied. We’ve waited 15 minutes. Now we’re good to go, right?
The best way to not get sunburned is to not let the sun’s rays hit your body. A very simple helper in this endeavor is a hat. My kids tolerate hats much better than I do; I generally cannot stand to have anything on my head. I know I should get over it, but … I’m set in my ways. For my kids, though, they wear hats. 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.
Also, 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, and perhaps this is where you should be when the sun’s rays are at their peak (between the hours of 1000 and 1500). Also please note: just because it is not full-strength sun, you can still get a sunburn. Even on cloudy days, the sun’s rays are strong. 80% of the sun’s rays can pass through a cloud cover; you need sunblock even on those days. As a reminder: the sun's rays can also give you a sunburn through glass and windows.
What else should I be doing to keep my kids well in the sun?
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Time in the sun not only ups the body temperature, often clicking on the sweat-making machine, but also fun in the sun might make one less prone to keeping tabs on their thirst levels. I believe water is best. Even a juice-lover will gladly down a big glass of refreshingly cool water when they are dripping with sweat. Kids sweat; it’s a fact of life. They won’t stop running 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. Note: Kids don’t need rehydration fluids. They don’t need Gatorade or Propel or any of those; those rehydration drinks are created for professional athletes (or at least collegiate-level) who exercise for hours on end and sweat profusely. Most of those drinks have more calories and sugar than soft drinks do, and they are generally filled with substances that are not naturally occurring (read: chemicals). I am not saying there is not a time or a place for sports drinks, but … your kid will be fine with water. Really.
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.
Now, who’s ready to have some fun in the sun!?
For further reading: