Last year I wrote about the surprising fact that, according to the FDA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, there is no consensus on whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer. Because both UV radiation and many common sunscreen ingredients generate free radicals that accelerate skin aging and cause skin cancer, if you use sunscreen improperly, you may be causing more harm than good. According to EWG, "Most experts agree that people should use sunscreens to protect their skin from the sun, but they disagree widely on how well they actually work." Many experts now recommend clothing and shade, not sunscreen, as primary barriers from sun exposure.
My children and I spend at least two hours and as many as six hours outside whenever weather permits, which is nearly every day in northern California. We use clothing and shade as primary barriers from the sun, and sunscreen only on occasion (beach trips and a few other occasions). Here are my some tips for avoiding sunburns and carcinogenic UV radiation without exposing your family to harmful chemicals.
Safe Sun Tips
- Wear hats. For kids, have hats without strings (for easy on/off and safe playing on playground equipment) as well as hats with strings (for windy days and long walks/hikes). I wish schools would make kids wear hats outside.
- Wear sunglasses. I wear sunglasses all the time outside. I need to start having my kids wear sunglasses while walking and hiking (but not playing on equipment). The sunglasses for kids I've seen have lenses that seem much too dark. Any suggestions for sunglasses for small children?
- Wear long-sleeves year-round. I almost always put my kids in long-sleeve shirts. When it's cold, long-sleeves keep them warm; when it's hot, long-sleeves protect their arms from the sun. Thicker, tightly woven, dark fabrics make the best barriers to UV radiation. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, "the easiest way to test if a fabric can protect your skin is to hold it up to the light. If you can see through it, then UV radiation can penetrate it – and your skin." I do let my kids wear shorts when it's really warm, since their legs aren't as exposed to the sun.
- Limit your time in the sun, especially when the sun is strongest (mid-day, summertime).
- Seek shade.
- Or, bring your own shade.
- If outside for an extended period of time (day at the beach, sports event), use sunscreen in addition to the above.
- Use EWG's Guide to the Best Sunscreens for latest information on sunscreen. According to EWG, "Very few sunscreens provide adequate sun protection and are free of harmful ingredients."
- Use sunscreen properly! Apply an adequate amount (about a palmful or one ounce evenly over all exposed skin) every couple of hours and immediately after being in the water or sweating a lot. Experts state that there is no such thing as a "waterproof" sunscreen.
- Remember that a little sun (vitamin D) is good for you!
Safe Sunscreen Tips
Here are some tips for buying sunscreen to remember in case you find yourself buying sunscreen on the fly without access to the Skin Deep Database (there is an app, if you have a smartphone):
- Use creams, not sprays or powders which can be inhaled. I apply sunscreen while children are still in their car seats. This makes it easier to spread creams on squirmy toddlers and preschoolers, and gets the skin protected before they are exposed to the sun.
- Look for the active ingredients zinc or titanium. These mineral sunscreens are stable in sunlight and do not appear to penetrate the skin. They also block both UVA light (carcinogenic) and UVB light (causes sunburns).
- Avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A commonly found in U.S. sunscreens. A National Institute of Health panel recently concluded that retinyl palmitate speeds the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.
- If you want to be extra safe, avoid nanoparticles, which some believe have not been adequately tested for safety.