sunscreenUpdated on May 21, 2013

You’re a seasoned mom. You’ve known the basics of sunscreen for years: Look for a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, reapply every two hours or after swimming, yadda yadda, etc., etc. But what about the questions you need to know now?

To get answers to some of today’s lingering questions, I touched base with Desiree Carton of the American Cancer Society and Dr. Lawrence Rosen, a founding member and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Integrative Medicine (SOIM), whose primary care practice, the Whole Child Center, is in Oradell. If you’re ready for the next level of sunscreen know-how, read on!

Q: What’s the deal with “non-chemical” sunscreens for kids?

Most sunscreens depend on chemicals like oxybenzone to do the dirty work of protecting your skin. The problem, according to Dr. Rosen, is that these chemicals have the potential to be endocrine disrupters, interfering with hormone balance (especially in kids), and, ironically, to increase cancer risk. This hasn’t been proven in humans, but “animal and basic science research indicates cause for caution,” says Dr. Rosen.

Enter the so-called “non-chemical” or “mineral-based” sunscreens, which derive their UV ray-fighting power from zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Unlike oxybenzone, which works by getting absorbed into the skin, these ingredients function as a physical barrier to the sun’s rays (hence the white film). And, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), they’re tops at protecting the skin from both UVA and UVB radiation (i.e., “broad-spectrum”).

EWG publishes a list of what they deem the best sunscreens. While many of them are obscure and/or expensive, there are some reasonably priced and readily available ones, like Coppertone’s Kids Pure & Simple Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 50) and Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 50).

Q: Are kids' sunscreen sprays as effective as the lotions?

The ACS doesn’t warn against sprays, emphasizing that it’s the SPF that matters. However, I’ve yet to find a non-chemical spray. So if you’re looking for a sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, you’re probably going to have to suck it up and slather on the white stuff.

EWG also cautions that sprays may pose serious inhalation risks (you should spray in a well-ventilated area or outside) and make it too easy to miss a spot. And the FDA has requested more information on spray sunscreens, saying that the form may change the sunscreen’s effectiveness.

Q: If you’re applying sunscreen and insect repellent, which do you apply first?

Apply the sunscreen first. As you know, sunscreen needs to be reapplied about every two hours. Insect repellents containing either essential oils or 10% DEET do, too, so if you use one of those, the repellent and sunscreen can be reapplied at the same time (again, with the sunscreen first) when necessary. Repellents with higher concentrations of DEET may not need to be reapplied—check package instructions. It’s ok to reapply the sunscreen over the DEET when you need more sunscreen but not more repellent.

Q: Can I use sunscreen-insect repellent combos?

Both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advise against such combos when the repellent contains DEET. However, combos that depend on a natural ingredient like citronella to keep bugs at bay are fine, according to Dr. Rosen. But beware: just because a repellent is natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe or effective. See the CDC and AAP pages for guidance.

Q: Do I really have to apply sunscreen to the part in my child’s hair?

Sadly, if your child’s part is visible, the answer is yes. Of course, it’s best to cover the head completely, but get real, it’s not like your kid’s going to swim in the town pool wearing a broad-brimmed hat. A bathing cap would work, but good luck getting your daughter to keep one on. Perhaps she’d go for a ponytail, which will cover the part.

Q: When it comes to SPF, the higher the better—right?

To a point. There actually is not enough evidence to suggest that sunscreens with SPFs higher than 50 provide extra protection, so the FDA is considering a proposal is to limit the maximum SPF on labels to “50+.”

Prevention is critical

Keep in mind that although sunscreen is important, “there is nothing better than shade from the damaging sun,” according to Carton. Read the full set of recommendations from the ACS.

It may seem like it’s all more trouble than it’s worth, but don’t despair. While it’s not realistic to stay out of the sun altogether, and you’re not really going to dress your kids in long-sleeved shirts and long pants in Jersey summer heat, you can dress your son in a long-sleeved swim shirt and long-ish swim trunks when going swimming, which will decrease the amount of sunscreen he’ll need (not to mention the application time). With your daughter, why not trade in that itty-bitty bikini for a swim shirt and skirt combo? These measures have not only helped protect my kids from the sun, but they’ve also made it easier for me to get out the door when we’re hitting the beach or the pool. And so has this: sticking to the non-chemical sunscreen with my kids, but using the easy-peasy chemical spray on myself (applied away from the kids, of course!). I figure if I survived the ‘80s, when we all ate pesticide-laden fruit and roasted in the sun with no sunscreen whatsoever–I even used to spray my bedding with OFF! to keep the mosquitoes away while I slept–I must be made of steel.