The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently announced it will be regulating sunscreen claims much more rigorously given rising concerns over skin cancer risks from childhood sunburn and lifetime exposures. Under the new rules, which won’t go into effect for a year, sunscreens will have to protect against both UVB rays (which cause burning) and UVA rays (which cause wrinkles). Both UVB and UVA can cause skin cancer.
In the meantime, here are five important steps you can take to protect your family.
1. Before your kids go outside, check the online UV Index from the Environmental Protection Agency. You just type in your zip code to get the UV forecast for your community or for a place you are visiting. If it’s high, cover up and try to minimize exposure time, especially from noon to 4 p.m., when the sun is strongest. If you’re going to the beach, cover up and go out earlier in the morning or late in the day.
2. Always wear sunscreen and reapply every 2 hours, more often if your kids swim or sweat. The FDA says: “People over the age of 50 and under the age of 5 are generally more sensitive to the harmful effects of UV. Those with immune deficiencies and chronic diseases also tend to be more susceptible to the side-effects of UV exposure.” So the FDA’s advice is to apply sunscreen to children older than 6 months every time they go out.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents keep babies under the age of six months out of the sun. When that isn’t possible, prevent sun exposure by dressing the baby in lightweight long pants, long-sleeved shirts and brimmed hats that shade the neck. You can apply a minimal amount of sunscreen with at least 15 SPF to small areas, but you must be very cautious to avoid areas that the baby could reach with his or her mouth.
3. Use recommended brands of sunscreen. In tests reported on dozens of products, both Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that almost every tested sunscreen contained some ingredients associated with adverse health effects in animal studies. But in general, the proven benefits of using sunscreens outweigh any of the potential risks from questionable ingredients.
Health experts note that the ingredient, retinyl palmitate (look for it among inactive ingredients), a type of topical vitamin A, is an antioxidant that animal studies have linked to an increased risk of skin cancers. In skin, it converts readily to retinoids, associated with a risk of birth defects in people using acne medications containing them. As a precaution, pregnant women and young children may want to avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate.
The AAP and EWG also advise parents to avoid products with oxybenzone. And the AAP has concerns that ingredients, such as nano-sized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, might be linked to developmental and reproductive problems. So you may want to avoid products with these ingredients.
Based on reported tests, some good product choices include: No-Ad with Aloe and Vitamin E SPF 45, and Equate Baby SPF 50–both of these products are lotions. The FDA does not recommend using sprays on young children as they could breathe in or ingest the chemicals from a spray, which can be tricky to apply on windy days.
4. Buy a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 (plenty for most people) and one that is labeled very water resistant. When you reapply your sunscreen every 2 hours or so, and after swimming or sweating, be sure to use 2 to 3 tablespoons of a lotion. Most people don’t use enough.
Remember, the SPF number on the label, or sun-protection factor, is for protection against UVB radiation only. Much higher numbers don’t necessarily translate into greater protection. There is no protection factor for UVA radiation on labels at this time.
5. In addition to applying sunscreens, it is extremely important to cover up your kids by wearing tightly woven hats and clothing. Keep extra tee-shirts on hand for beach excursions, as wet tee shirts aren’t as protective against UV exposure as dry ones. Sunglasses are a good idea and should offer both UVA and UVB lens protection. Remember that sunscreens are just one tool and that covering up and limiting exposure times are crucial.
Joyce H. Newman is an Emmy Award-winning environmental journalist, educator, and gardener. She holds a Certificate in Horticulture from The New York Botanical Garden, and is a tour guide there.