Don’t Get Burned! A Parent’s Guide to Reading Sunscreen Labels

Sunscreen Protection for Kids
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With summer afoot, it’s time to load up on sun protection for our precious littles. But be careful…manufacturers are constantly changing formulas to keep up with evolving research and trends. What may have been your go-to brand last summer could be an itchy disaster this year. So check out our informative guide below for the latest evidence-based recommendations, and choose your next tube of lube with confidence! Or skip to the nitty-gritty here.

Children and adolescents have the highest rates of sunburn nationwide, and studies show that these “intermittent” early sunburns can double their risk for melanoma later in life.

Thus, it has become a daily priority to avoid those painful sunburns with handfuls of hair-wrecking and suit-staining goop. But if you’re like me, you find the sunscreen aisle increasingly overwhelming each year. It was simple for our parents; Coppertone for the kids, Hawaiian Tropic for the bronzing adults. But with today’s knowledge of the potential detriments of sun exposure combined with scientific enterprise and creative marketing, this summer shopping list staple has become complicated.

To help simplify the process, here is key information you need before choosing a sunscreen for your family. An informed decision can help protect you all from both short and long-term skin troubles. Hopefully, this will shave 15 minutes from your next Target run, too.

You’ll find a quick list of topics covered below; but feel free to skip to the sections that interest you most. And don’t forget to check out our cool Infographic at the bottom of the page for quick reference on-the-go.

Sun Science
Types of Sunscreens
Formulation, SPF, Spectrum and Water-Resistance
Safety
Recommendations for Infants and Children
Using Sunscreen Effectively
How to Choose a Sunscreen

Sun Science

While sunlight is beneficial to us for mood elevation and Vitamin D synthesis, its ultraviolet (UV) rays can have harmful effects. Both UVA and UVB rays are believed to contribute to sunburn, aging and skin cancers. However, UVB rays are typically considered the more harmful of the two.

Susceptibility to sunburn (how easily one burns) is associated with an increase in a person’s risk of skin cancer. Several factors can increase a person’s risk or susceptibility to sunburn and include:

  • Genetic Characteristics – Fair skin, blue eyes, and having red or blond hair is associated with a higher susceptibility to sunburn.
  • Geographical Location – UVB rays are strongest near the equator.
  • Time of Day – Sunburn occurs most often after noon.
  • Photosensitizing Agents – Exposure to certain drugs (some found in sunscreens!), plants, tanning equipment and phototherapies such as chemo can increase risk.
  • Additional Factors – Altitude, reflection from sand, snow and water, and skin conditions (wet skin) can increase susceptibility.

Types of Sunscreens

Topical sunscreens contain filters that either absorb or reflect UV rays. Sunscreens that filter both UVA and UVB rays are known as “broad-spectrum.”

Organic Filters (formerly called Chemical Sunscreens)

  • These compounds absorb UV rays and convert them to heat.
  • These filters can only block one type of UV ray (A or B) and are used in multi-ingredient combinations for broad-spectrum coverage.
  • Some are considered “unstable” ingredients, and have a greater risk for skin irritation.
  • Common organic filters in the US include:
    • Benzophenones (Oxybenzone, Avobenzone)
    • Cinnamates (Octinoxate)
    • Octocrylene
    • Salicylates (Octisalate, Homosalate)
    • Mexoryl

Inorganic Filters (formerly called Mineral Sunscreens)

  • These compounds are primarily reflect and scatter UV light, but studies show they may also absorb rays, particularly newer, micronized preparations.
  • Original large particle formulations offer a thicker white coating on the skin and can physically block light.
  • Newer formulations (nanoparticles or micronized) have been developed to meet the demand for more “cosmetically-desirable” sunscreens that absorb better into the skin. Recent studies show these formulations are not thought to be absorbed systemically, but more studies are being conducted.
  • Individual ingredients offer broad-spectrum coverage; combination formulas are not necessary.
  • Stable ingredients have low irritation potential.
  • Common inorganic filters in the US include:
    • Zinc Oxide
    • Titanium Dioxide

Formulation, SPF, Spectrum and Water-Resistance

Formulation – All active sunscreen ingredients are oil-soluble, and higher SPF formulations are more concentrated and thus, stickier, as is found typically in cream formulations. In an effort to meet the demand for “cosmetic elegance,” manufacturers now offer a variety of oil-in-water emulsions (lotions) and alcohol/oil-based products (sprays, liquids and gels).

The latter evaporates more quickly and can leave inconsistent coverage and irritate the skin.  Additionally, newer spray formulations of nanoparticular or micronized titanium and zinc haven’t been studied enough to determine the degree of absorption into the skin.

SPF – A minimum SPF of 15 is sufficient for daily cosmetic use; however, sunscreens with an SPF of 30-50 provide better protection for prolonged sun exposure (outdoor work, sports and recreational activities).

Sunscreens claiming an SPF greater than 50 have a negligible amount of increased protection; in fact, the FDA now classifies these as simply “SPF 50+”

Spectrum – While UVB rays are considered more harmful than UVA rays, they only make up about 5% of UV rays altogether. Because the majority of UV radiation from the sun is UVA, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen for the most complete protection.

There are actually only three ingredients that cover one subtype of UVA rays (UVA1). So, for a product to be fully “broad-spectrum,” it should contain either Avobenzone (organic), Zinc Oxide (inorganic) or Titanium Dioxide (inorganic).

Water-Resistance – A product can be labeled “water-resistant” or “very water-resistant” if the SPF is maintained after 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating, respectively. Some formulations may require a wait time before water exposure to be fully effective.

Safety

Evidence suggests that most sunscreens are safe and do not pose a significant health threat. However systemic absorption of both organic and inorganic ingredients has been and continues to be studied.

Organic (Chemical) Sunscreens – These ingredients have higher rates (approx. 1%) of skin sensitivities, including allergic and contact dermatitis. Also reported are photoallergic reactions; these occur when an allergic response to an ingredient occurs when applied in combination with sun exposure. Oxybenzone is the most commonly associated ingredient with this type of reaction.

Studies have also found detectable levels of some organic UV filters in the blood plasma and urine of humans when studied after consistent application over 1 week; additionally, there is some evidence that suggests hormonal effects may occur in animals who ingest some organic filters.

Inorganic (Mineral) Sunscreens – These ingredients have very low rates of reported irritation and are not thought to be absorbed systemically in large particle formats. However, newer nanoparticle formulations are currently being studied.

It is thought that both their mechanism of action and absorption potential may be different than that with large particle formulations. The most recent literature, however, supports that absorption of nanoparticular inorganic compounds is limited to the layers of the skin.

Recommendations for Infants and Children

Infants under 6 months – An infant’s skin is immature and has a higher absorption rate than mature skin. Thus, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend routine use of sunscreens for infants under 6 months of age. However, if other protective measures such as clothing and shade are unavailable, minimal amounts of SPF 15 or higher can be applied to small areas (face and hands).

Older Infants and Children – Oil-based inorganic non-spray sunscreens (creams and lotions with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide) are preferred for children. They offer broad-spectrum coverage with minimal irritation. Non-spray formulas reduce the risk of inhalation.

Organic (chemical) sunscreens have been associated with a higher number of adverse reactions and not all are broad-spectrum. See Safety above.

Using Sunscreen Effectively

The Teaspoon Rule — To ensure an adequate amount of sunscreen is applied, this method is recommended for the average adult application.

For adults and teens, apply approximately 1 teaspoon of sunscreen to each of the following areas:

  • Face and Neck
  • Front Torso
  • Back Torso
  • Left Arm
  • Right Arm

Apply 2 teaspoons each to:

  • Left Leg
  • Right Leg

The rule can be adjusted (½ tsp for infants and toddlers, ¾ teaspoon for preschoolers and school-aged).

Timing – Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure, and at least 10 minutes (ideally) before dressing and/or swimming. Reapply every 2 hours and after swimming or excessive sweating.

Other Protection – Use topical sunscreens in conjunction with other sun protective efforts:

  • Always utilize available shade and protective clothing (umbrellas, sun hats, rash guard, UPF clothing, etc.).
  • Avoid direct sun exposure between the hours of noon and 3pm when possible.

How to Choose a Sunscreen for your Family

  • Choose a broad-spectrum formula with an SPF > 30.
  • Avoid spray formulas to prevent inhalation and inconsistent coverage. More studies are needed on the absorption of titanium and zinc in this form. When unavoidable, spray sunscreen into your hand away from child and apply manually.
  • Aim for the active ingredients Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide ONLY. These have a better safety profile and reduced reports of irritation. Avoid these in combination with organic (chemical) filters.
  • Do the best you can! Any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. Sunscreen can be pricey, and availability may be limited, depending on your location and the time of year. For families with little or no skin sensitivities, larger families and those with strict budgets, organic sunscreens may be the best option.

Most importantly, all sunscreens work best when used correctly, consistently and with other protective measures.

Hopefully, now you’ll feel a bit more confident the next time you restock your beach bag! There are still a lot of choices out there – check out the EPA’s 2017 Best Sunscreens for Kids for a variety of the best brands available. Options do vary by retailer, and, remember, many manufacturers alter their formula year-to-year, so don’t be afraid to try something again if it meets your new criteria! So keep smearing that health-promoting goop on those youthful faces, Mohawks, and summer pastel threads. Your kids, and their kids, will thank you.

Print out our Infographic below!

A Parent's Guide to Sunscreen Protection for Kids

Don’t Get Burned!

Amanda Gorman
Amanda is a board-certified pediatric nurse practitioner, and the owner of Nest Collaborative, an online pediatric practice specializing in pediatric and lactation telemedicine services in Maryland.
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