As our first beach vacation with two little kids loomed, I had to do one of those chores that sounds easy but turns out to be anything but. I had to buy sunscreen. It seems like the task should take five minutes on Amazon. But as any parent with an internet connection knows, the choice is fraught.
You can pick from formulas that block rays with chemicals or minerals such as zinc oxide. SPFs can surpass 100. There are lotions and sprays, “organic” and “natural,” “sensitive” and “sport.” Some are marketed specifically for kids. Some are endorsed by various interest groups. And then there’s the cost. Highly rated sunscreens on Amazon vary in cost by 3,000 percent. Amid the chaos, I ended up picking an SPF 30 and being done with it.
With the beach vacation behind us, I’ve had the presence of mind to take a clear-eyed look at the sunscreen boondoggle. It seems that my trouble was in some ways a mess of my own making. I was distracted by zippy marketing words that obscured the core attributes of a good sunscreen. It turns out that the task can be pretty simple, if you keep a few key things in mind.
Look for SPF of 30 or higher.
The sun protection factor is a measurement that tells you how long the sunscreen will protect your skin from sunburn-causing ultraviolet-B rays, as compared to no sunscreen at all. Sunscreens with an SPF of 30 will protect you from UV-B rays for 30 times longer than normal. Say you’d normally burn after 20 minutes in the sun without any sunscreen. After you correctly apply a sunscreen with SPF 30, you’d be able to go 10 hours. Sunscreens with an SPF of 30 will block 97 percent of UV-B rays. There may be diminishing returns as the SPF number goes up, though. There’s little evidence that SPFs over 50 offer increasing protection.
Make sure the sunscreen says “broad spectrum” on the label.
That means the sunscreen will thwart both UV-A and UV-B rays. UV-A rays are thought to be responsible for deep skin damage, while UV-Bs are the ones that cause sunburns. Both flavors of the sun’s rays can increase the risk of skin cancer.
Choose one that’s water resistant.
That doesn’t mean that water won’t wash it off. No sunscreen is completely waterproof, a fact that means sunscreens are no longer allowed to make that claim.
Don’t necessarily trust the ratings.
Of the sunscreens in the top 1 percent on Amazon, a full 40 percent of them failed to meet the criteria set out by the American Academy of Dermatology — SPF of 30 or higher, broad spectrum and water resistant, a recent JAMA Dermatology paper found.
As study coauthor Steve Xu of Northwestern University says, “Picking the right product is only the first step. Using it correctly is just as important.” Put sunscreen on to your kids before they go outside, so the sunscreen can soak in. Make sure to cover all exposed skin, including the tops of ears and toes. And reapply every two hours, or immediately after your kids get out of water.
Those are the main points. Of course, you could choose to wade through a lot more weeds in the decision. Sunscreens based on physical blockers, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, reflect the sun’s rays. Chemical blockers such as oxybenzone absorb the rays and get rid of the extra energy in harmless ways. Mineral-based sunscreens may be less likely to irritate babies’ and children’s skin than chemical blockers, for instance.
The jury is still out on spray sunscreen, which aerosolizes the particles and promises fewer child chase-downs. The FDA has called for more data to evaluate those. And then there’s the question of sunscreen for babies younger than six months. Most sources say that when possible, opt for shade and hats instead of sunscreen for the littlest babies.
So as you prepare for your time in the sun, stick to a few basic facts to help you choose a sunscreen. Instead, apply the time you save toward forcing cute sunhats on your squirmy kids.