Dear Mr. Dad:
I thought I was doing the right thing by slathering my 1-year-old with sunscreen when we go outside, but I just read that the chemicals in sunscreen could be more harmful than the sun. Now what are we supposed to do?
A: For years, we’ve been programmed to practically marinate our kids in sunscreen before sending them outside. But recently, as you point out, the effectiveness and safety of that strategy is in question.
In a 2010 study, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog, reported that only 39 of the 500 sunscreen products they examined were safe and effective.
The study claims sunscreens flaunt false sun protection ratings (SPF); that one common ingredient, oxybenzone, is a hormone-disrupting chemical that can affect puberty; and another, retinyl palmitate (a derivative of Vitamin A), could actually accelerate some cancers instead of preventing them.
But the emphasis needs to be on the word “could” as the research is hardly definitive.
The American Academy of Dermatology, for example, maintains that sunscreens, even those with oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, are safe for most people older than 6 months.
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, but recommends that babies under 6 months be kept out of direct sunlight and shouldn’t wear sunscreen except in very small areas, such as their hands.
For babies older than 6 months, the AAP recommends sunscreen but says the best protection is limiting sun exposure, especially around midday, and wearing protective clothing, including a hat.
If you’re concerned about sunscreen chemicals, look for “chemical-free” or “mineral-based” brands that don’t contain oxybenzone.
But don’t go overboard. In small doses, the sun is actually healthy. Those UVB rays help our bodies produce vitamin D which is essential for healthy immune systems and bones. If you’re going to be out in the sun for a few hours, you and your children need protection; if you’re just running around for 10 minutes, you should be OK.
Here’s how to protect babies and toddlers from the sun:
• Limit exposure to direct sunlight, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when rays are strongest.
• Use protective lightweight clothing to cover up, including a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses (if they pull them off, keep putting them back on).
• If you’re not using a zinc or titanium blocks, apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside so it has plenty of time to get absorbed into the skin. But regardless of the type of sunscreen, reapply every two hours or after swimming.
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