When it comes to buying the right sunscreen, there are so many choices you may not know which is best. Sunscreen, or sunblock, protects skin against the sun's ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which cause sunburn.
When choosing sunscreen for children, look for the following:
- Sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher
- Contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (better for sensitive skin)
- Broad spectrum coverage (meaning the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays)
Keep in mind that you don't necessarily need to buy sunscreen that says it is made for infants or children specifically. As long as the sunscreen provides all the ingredients above, it is okay and safe for your child says Nnenna Agim, M.D., Division Director of Dermatology at Children's Health℠.
Any ingredients to avoid? Dr. Agim recommends avoiding sunscreens containing avobenzone, which has been found to be bad for the environment. Furthermore, it is now banned in some locations.
Tips for using sunscreen the right way
Even once you have the right sunscreen on hand, it won't provide the protection you need unless you apply it correctly.
Follow these tips to make sure your child is protected:
Sunscreen isn't just for the beach or warm weather. You should apply it anytime your child is going to be outdoors. Even it's not sunny, 80 percent of ultraviolet rays still get through the haze. In addition, snow reflects 80 percent of the sun's power.
Skip the baby.
"Anyone 6 months or older needs to wear sunscreen," says Dr. Agim. "If your child is under 6 months, we recommend limited exposure to the sun. Keep your baby in the shade, with a hat and clothing to cover their sun sensitive new skin."
Avoid the spray.
Spray on sunscreen can be great for saving time, but it puts your child at risk of breathing in harmful chemicals when you spray. Opt for lotion-style sunscreen, which also contains moisturizers for the skin. The thicker and greasier the lotion, the more water resistant it tends to be as well.
A big mistake is that some parents just don't put enough sunscreen on their children. In general, it takes about one ounce (two tablespoons) of sunscreen to cover the exposed parts of your body. Less for smaller children. Make sure important parts of your child's body are covered, such as the nose, ears, neck, hands and feet. Lips also are at risk for sunburn, so select a lip balm with an SPF 30 or higher.
Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before your child will be exposed to the sun and plan to repeat the process every one to two hours, or sooner if your child has been in the water.
Communicate with other caregivers.
If your child will be in the care of someone else – whether a relative, friend or child care provider – make sure you've communicated with them about sunscreen. Establish who will apply sunscreen and how often, to make sure your child's skin is always protected.
Is it ever dangerous to wear sunscreen?
The short answer is no. Some media reports have circulated that sunscreen causes skin cancer. However, the FDA and the American Academy of Dermatology consider sunscreen products safe and effective in helping prevent skin cancer — which is increasing. One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Some experts believe the association between sunscreen and cancer likely comes from people using sunscreen incorrectly. When it's not used properly, it becomes ineffective.
Dr. Agim cautions parents not to rely on oral supplements promising sun protection. "These pills can give a false sense of security and should never replace sunscreen," she says.
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