What Parents Need to Know about Summertime and Sunscreen

It’s summertime, and the usual time for many parents to question all the different varieties of sunscreen – what works, what SPF is best, are they safe, what is the best method of application? To help answer these questions, here is some helpful information about what parents need to know about summertime and sunscreen.

What You Need to Know

During the summer months, you are more careful than ever about protecting your child’s delicate skin.  All those fun outdoor activities are great, but kids are especially prone to dangerous sunburn and sun-related skin problems.  The U.S.  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers the following advice about using sunscreen and protecting you and your child from overexposure or sunburn:

  • Use broad spectrum (protects skin from UVA and UVB radiation) sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15, or higher depending on your complexion or doctor’s orders.
  • Reapply every two hours, or even more frequently if you are in water or are sweating. There really is no such thing as “waterproof” sunscreen.  Water resistant sunscreens must identify how long they will stay in place, and when to reapply.
  • Wear clothing that will protect your skin, such as long pants, long-sleeved shirts, hats, and sunglasses to protect your eyes.
  • Limit your time in the sun, especially during the most intense hours of the day, which are between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

This advice from the FDA is a great starting point to help protect your skin during the summer months.  Read on to learn more about some of the most common questions asked about sunscreen.

What is the Best Method of Applying Sunscreen?

Application of sunscreen is as varied as the different brands and types.  Your local retailer probably has a wide selection of sunscreens in the form of oils, pastes, sprays, creams, lotions, gels, or even butters.  Always read the label before application, as the type of product you purchase will have individual directions for application.

As a general rule, you want to apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before you go outside.  This allows it time to absorb into your skin and starting protecting it.  You should use enough sunscreen to cover exposed skin on your face and body.  The FDA also recommends carefully applying sunscreen to the following (often forgotten) areas:

  • Top of the feet
  • Parts, thinning, or balding areas on the head
  • Lips
  • Hands
  • Ears

Keep sunscreen out of direct sunlight to avoid compromising the product, or heating it up, which can make it uncomfortable to apply.

What Does SPF Mean, and Does it Really Matter?

SPF refers to the “sun protection factor”, or the level of sunburn protection the product provides.  In simpler terms, the SPF indicates the amount of UV radiation required to cause sunburn while using SPF as opposed to not applying sunscreen at all.  The higher the value SPF, the more protection you have from UV radiation.

SPF does NOT relate to the amount of time spent in the sun.  There is a common misconception that SPF coverage allows you to stay in the sun longer without the risk of sunburn.  That is not true.  SPF relates to the amount of UV radiation exposure your skin receives, not the amout of time you can safely spend in the sun.  Choosing the SPF that is right for your skin depends on your complexion, as fair skinned individuals are more likely to burn with minimal sun exposure.

As mentioned before, “broad spectrum” refers to both UVA and UVB radiation being blocked, while sunscreens that are not broad spectrum only block UVA radiation.  Broad spectrum sunscreen definitely offers the most protection.

Is Sunscreen Really Safe? What about all those Warnings?

Sunscreen is a form of medication or drug, and as such, has a list of active and inactive ingredients.  Sunscreen is an FDA-regulated product, and as such, must pass certain tests and follow certain guidelines.  One of those guidelines is the active ingredients.  FDA accepted active ingredients may include:

  • Aminobenzoic Acid
  • Avobenzone
  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Octyl Salicylate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Trolamine salicylate
  • Zinc oxide

These active ingredients are designed to protect the surface of your skin, but there is the possibility that some of the ingredients may penetrate the skin and enter your body.  This is why the FDA requires testing.

Another warning that is worth noting is the expiration date.  As a general rule, if any medication or drug does not have a solid expiration date, it should be considered expired after three years from the date of purchase.  Using any medication past the due date can alter its effectiveness and should be discarded.

It is also advised that you don’t purchase sunscreen from outside the United States without considering the ingredients.  Some countries regulate sunscreen as a cosmetic, and may not be tested or regulated to the same standards as the FDA.

Is Sunscreen Safe for Infants or Young Children?

Most sunscreen labels have warnings that they are not intended for infants or children.  Infants are more prone to negative side effects of sunscreen, such as irritation or rash.  The FDA (and most doctors) recommend infants be kept out of the sun, especially during the most intense hours of the day.  Children and infants over six months old may be able to use sunscreen.  It is best to ask your pediatrician before using any medication on infants or young children.

Sources:

https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm309136.htm

https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/SpecialFeatures/ucm481139.htm

https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/ucm239463.htm?source=govdelivery&utm_medium=email&utm_source=govdelivery