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Fun in the sun is a year-round activity in Southern California. But all that sunshine means it’s critical to protect your child (and yourself) from the sun’s harmful rays.
“One or more blistering sunburns in childhood can more than double your chances of developing melanoma later on,” says Minnelly Luu, MD, a pediatric dermatologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. “Melanoma and other types of skin cancers can also occur in all skin types and tones.”
One way to protect your child is sunscreen. But with so many sunscreens out there, how do you know which one is effective—and safe—for your child? Dr. Luu shares the latest advice.
Keep babies under 6 months of age out of the direct sun and cover them with protective clothing. Sunscreen can be used for babies under 6 months of age on areas that cannot be covered, but shade cover and clothing should be the primary method of sun protection in this young age group.
A broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun: UVA and UVB.
UVA rays, often called “aging” rays, penetrate into the thickest layer of skin and have long-term effects, such as premature wrinkles and age spots. UVB rays, called “burning” rays, produce short-term effects on the skin and are the primary cause of sunburn.
Both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer.
Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Some sunscreens are also labeled “water-resistant.” This is not the same as waterproof. All sunscreens wash off. Always reapply after swimming or sweating a lot.
There are two main types of sunscreens: mineral and chemical. They both protect you from the sun, but they do so in different ways. (And despite the names, both use chemicals.)
How can you tell which one you’re buying? Read the “active ingredients” part of the label. If it’s a mineral sunscreen, the only active ingredients will be zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Any other active ingredient is likely a chemical filter.
Note: Some sunscreens use both mineral and chemical ingredients.
In general, mineral sunscreens are the best pick—especially for babies and young children.
Why? First, mineral sunscreens are less irritating for those with sensitive skin. But there is also some controversy around the ingredients in chemical sunscreens.
Recent studies have found that chemical sunscreen ingredients are absorbed into the bloodstream at significant levels—even after just one use. They can remain in the blood for extended periods.
However, just because an ingredient is absorbed into the blood does not mean it’s unsafe or harmful. The Food and Drug Administration still recommends using chemical sunscreens.
Studies have not found that nanoparticles in mineral sunscreens are absorbed into the blood in a significant way. Given the current data, Dr. Luu recommends mineral sunscreens as a first choice for babies and children.
Although mineral sunscreens often come in “clear” formulas, many can still leave a white, chalky residue and be a bit harder to apply. This can bother some older children and teens.
“If your child or teen won’t use a mineral sunscreen, then it’s OK to use a chemical one,” Dr. Luu says. “Any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen.”
The two most common sunscreen mistakes are not using enough—and not reapplying often enough. Here are some tips for success:
Sunscreen is just one part of protecting your child from the sun. Don’t forget to: