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We all know that the sun can be damaging to our skin, and research shows that children are at particular risk when it comes to harmful rays. While sunscreen can help to keep your kiddos safe, not all sunscreens are created equal.
Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG, a non-profit, non-partisan consumer advocacy organization) reviews the top sunscreens for kids each year for safety. The EWG rates sunscreens based on their ingredients and efficacy. Consumer Reports (a non-profit member organization) also puts out an annual sunscreen review focused on those that are at least a 30 SPF and are water resistant. Consumer Reports rates its test subjects for UVA- and UVB-blocking efficacy, the accuracy of its stated SPF and their “sensory” qualities (aka the scent and feel).
We’ve synthesized the two group’s sunscreen reviews along with advice from leading health-focused organizations to help you feel informed when it comes shielding your kids from the sun this summer.
But First, Here’s What You Really Need To Know About Sunscreen
There’s a lot of information out there about sunscreen, some of it conflicting, and it can be overwhelming to try and make sense of it all. To help wade through all the noise, we looked at recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the Melanoma Research Foundation.
Here are a few areas where experts all seem to agree when it comes to sunscreen use and how to choose the right product for you:
1. The Need To Protect Kids From The Sun
According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, one person an hour dies from melanoma. Further, the Foundation reports that “90 percent of melanomas are thought to be caused by UV light and sunlight.” Add to that the risk of other skin cancers not to mention the physical pain associated with getting a sunburn, and it’s obvious why protecting kids from the sun is so important.
2. Keep Kids Covered And Avoid The Sun’s Peak Hours If You Can
In addition to wearing sunscreen, experts recommend keeping skin covered in tightly woven but breathable fabrics. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends cotton clothing and rash guards. Likewise, kids should wear hats with wide brims to help keep them shaded and they should protect their eyes with sunglasses that filter UV rays.
The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Try to stay out of the sun as much as possible during these hours (or, as the AAP recommends, at least take frequent “shade breaks” during this period).
For babies 6 months and younger, the AAP recommends keeping them shaded from the sun at all times. Both the (AAD) and AAP recommend avoiding sunscreen use on babies under 6 months — or using minimal amounts when absolutely necessary.
3. Choose A Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen With A Minimum SPF of 30 — And Apply Often
The AAP recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 15, but the AAD recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least a 30 SPF.
Both groups recommend choosing a “water-resistant” sunscreen and applying it 15-30 minutes before you head into the sun. Likewise, it’s recommended that you reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
4. Be Careful With Sticks And Sprays
One mistake we often make when applying sunscreen is not using enough of it or “missing spots” that end up getting burned. The AAD recommends stick sunscreens for use around the eyes but recommends sticking (no pun intended) with a cream for the rest of your face and body. If you do use a stick elsewhere, be sure to coat the area twice to ensure you don’t miss a spot.
The expert takes on sunscreen sprays are a little more complicated. Like sticks, one of the concerns is inadequate coverage. It’s recommended that you spray the sunscreen on and then spread it across your skin’s surface with your hand to help avoid this issue.
The other issue with spray sunscreens is the inhalation risk. The FDA has yet to sound in with findings from its review of these risks. Until then, the AAD advises to never spray it on or around your face or mouth and to exercise particular caution around children.
5. The Problem With High SPFs
While it would seem logical to use the highest SPF possible, the EWG, FDA and AAD are all in alignment on this one: There’s not adequate data to prove that a sunscreen with SPF 100 performs better than one with SPF 50. As such, all groups say that’s where you should feel comfortable maxing out your SPF.
The EWG points out that using sunscreens with an SPF above 50 can actually be dangerous in that it provides those wearing it with a false sense of protection.
“Many studies have found that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen bottles,” the EWG site states. “They’re more likely to use high-SPF products improperly and, as a result, may expose themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than people relying on products with lower SPF values.”
Remember: Whether using sunscreen with SPF 30 or 50, it still needs to be applied carefully and amply every two hours (or more often if you’ve been swimming or sweating).
What To Know About Sunscreen Ingredients
One of the ingredients the EWG cautions parents to avoid is oxybenzone, which in some animal studies has been shown to affect hormone production. It’s important to note that, so far, short-term human studies have not been able to prove the chemical is harmful. The EWG outlines other concerns about oxybenzone that you can read through and evaluate for yourself.
Outside of child safety, you may want to consider the ecological effects of sunscreen. A 2015 study led by University of Central Florida researchers found that the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are commonly used in sunscreens, have been shown to both damage and kill coral reefs. It is estimated that 14,000 tons sunscreens end up in coral reefs every year. (Hawaii state legislators recently passed a bill that, if signed into law, will prevent sunscreens containing these ingredients from being sold or distributed there.)
One reason the EWG and other sources suggest you tread carefully when choosing a sunscreen is that some of the ingredients have been deemed “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) since the FDA started classifying sunscreen as a drug in 1978. That is to say, if a sunscreen was around before 1978, it was grandfathered in with the GRAS label and not subjected to the same testing that a new-to-market product is required to undergo. (One GRAS ingredient that was grandfathered in is bisphenol A. Subsequent FDA evaluation has deemed it safe.)
Another ingredient to look out for in sunscreens is methylisothiazolinone, a known skin allergen that many consumer goods companies are starting to factor out of their products because of the allergy risk. The ingredient is banned in Europe for use in leave-in products such as sunscreen. Health groups recommend spot-testing sunscreen on a small patch of skin before use to vet any possible allergic reactions.
Best Sunscreens For Kids
With the baseline recommendations from the AAD and AAP in mind, went through Consumer Reports and EWG’s rankings to bring you some of their top-rated sunscreens.
Equate Ultra Protection Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum, SPF 50, 16 Fl Oz
This Walmart-brand sunscreen made Consumer Reports’ list of recommended sunscreens and is one of their recommended “best bang for your buck” products — though note that they did not test any sunscreens specifically for kids. It passed their efficacy test, and it hits all the marks of being a broad-spectrum, water-resistant lotion with a SPF above 30. If you’re a parent who wants to avoid oxybenzone, however, you may want to skip this one.
Walmart, $7.50 for 16 ounces
Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Lotion Sunscreen, Sensitive Skin, SPF 50
This one was among the EWG’s top-ranked lotions for kids, meaning it meets their ingredient standards and proved effective. This one, too, hits all the marks of being a broad-spectrum, water-resistant lotion with a SPF above 30.
Target, $11 for 30 ounces
Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Baby, SPF 30+
Another top-rated sunscreen for kids from the EWG list, it clearly passed their ingredient and efficacy checks. It also hits all the marks of being a water-resistant, broad-spectrum lotion with a SPF of at least 30. This one also has an average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars out of 614 reviews on Amazon.
Amazon, $25 for 8.75 ounces
Sunscreens You May Want To Avoid
While Consumer Reports didn’t create a “worst” list, the publication did note that no mineral-based sunscreens ranked at the top of their lists. The publication did note that California Kids #Supersensitive Lotion SPF 30+ or Badger Active Unscented Cream SPF 30 both received scores of “Good,” for those who are dedicated to wearing mineral-based sunscreen.
Banana Boat Kids Continuous Spray Sunscreen, SPF 100
This Banana Boat spray received one of the lowest possible scores from the EWG due to its ingredient list, inhalation risk and high SPF. Consumer Reports didn’t evaluate this one.
Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 60+
This product also received the lowest possible rating from the EWG team based on its ingredient list and higher than 50 SPF. Consumer Reports didn’t evaluate this one.
Panama Jack Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 85
This one received a low score from the EWG due to its above-50 SPF and ingredient list. Consumer Reports didn’t evaluate this one.
Babyganics Mineral-Based Lotion, SPF 50+
This mineral-based sunscreen ranked low on Consumer Reports list with a rating of 22 out of 100. The EWG did not test this one.
What are your preferred sunscreens?
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