Is sunscreen safe? From parenting magazines to pediatricians, it seems like everyone is encouraging you to slather your little one with a high-SPF sunscreen every time you step outdoors. However, there's growing concern about the side effects of the chemicals typically found in sun cream.
In fact, sunscreen can pose as much (or more) danger to your kid than the UV rays it's protecting her from. Here's a look at some of the hidden dangers, as well as tips to ensure your child has safe fun in the sun.
- Toxicity. According to a recent Environmental Working Group (EWG) study of 783 sunscreens, a whopping 84 percent of products tested contained unsafe ingredients. One of the worst (and most common) chemicals found in samples is oxybenzone, an endocrine disruptor that can affect the nervous system and creates harmful free-radicals when exposed to the sun—meaning every time you use it! Many popular brands of sunscreen contain this ingredient, including Banana Boat and Coppertone.
- Flammable sprays. Sure, aerosol spray sunscreens are less messy than their lotion counterparts, but they're also highly flammable. Recently, a Massachusetts man suffered second-degree burns after he applied this type of sunscreen and then stood too close to his grill. Consumer Reports recommends that these sun-blocking sprays not be used on children at all. Even adults are advised to stay safe by applying aerosol sunscreen indoors and waiting at least 20 minutes before going out into the sunlight.
- May cause cancer. While vitamin A's antioxidant properties make for fabulous anti-aging night cream, going out into the sunlight with this stuff on your face is a bad, bad idea. When retinyl palmitate—a form of vitamin A that's found in many sunscreen products—is exposed to sunlight, it can promote growth of cancerous tumors and form free-radicals that damage DNA, according to a 2009 study by the FDA. Avoid any sunscreen containing either retinyl palmitate or retinol. You may love your wrinkle-fighting skin products, but slowing the aging process shouldn't be on your child's list of concerns.
- False sense of safety. Seeing that SPF 45 or 50 makes you feel safer, doesn't it? You may think slathering a high-SPF on your little one means avoiding sunburns during a worry-free day at the park, but that's not always the case. SPF 50 is supposed to mean that your kid can stay burn-free in the sun for 50 times longer than she could without sunscreen, but the FDA doubts the validity of these claims. In fact, the agency admitted in 2007 that the specified values may be fudged, and in 2011 prohibited companies from labeling sunscreen products with SPF values greater than 50. So don’t put too much faith in those numbers.
- Vitamin deficiency. Vitamin D is crucial to help kids grow and maintain healthy bones and a strong immune system, and it comes straight from sunlight exposure. The American Medical Association and the Center for Disease Control both report that Vitamin D deficiency is a prevalent issue, with up to 25 percent of Americans being at risk. Breastfed babies, dark-skinned children and overweight children are particularly susceptible, and the highest risk factor is limited exposure to the sun. In fact, the health benefits from the Vitamin D absorbed in any short-term sun exposure (about 15 to 20 minutes) may actually outweigh any risks from those harmful UVA and UVB rays.
- Not the best protection. Clothing, hats and shade do a better, safer job of protecting your kid from the sun than any chemical product. Zoe Diana Draelos, editor of the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, doubts the safety of sunscreen and recommends that it be used only on exposed areas, such as the face and hands. Cover up the rest of your little one's body with tightly woven clothing. Limiting sunscreen usage this way should prevent most of the health risks associated with its use.
- Safer sunscreen picks. Your best bets for toxin-free sunscreen products are cream-based brands without oxybenzone or vitamin A. Look for options that use zinc or titanium, such as Badger, California Baby, Aubrey Organics and Kiss My Face. While many Coppertone products are unsafe, it does have four products that make the EWG's list of safe sunscreens: Sensitive Skin Faces Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, Kids Pure & Simple Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 and Water Babies Pure & Simple Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50.
So is sunscreen safe enough to slather on when absolutely necessary? There's no easy answer. Limit exposure during the middle of the day when the sun is at its highest, approximately 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and cover your kids up as best you can, using dark fabrics and hats. When sunscreen is non-negotiable, such as a trip to the beach, be sure to shop around for safer, less-toxic brands.