There are over 1700 sunscreens on the market.  How do you choose which one is right for your child?  Even among the well-known brands only a few make safe sunscreens for children. When making a decision which sunscreen to buy, the most important facts to consider are applicable to adults as well.

When travelling to Columbia last month, we met a nice family from Miami. At the end of their stay, the mother handled me a tube of cream saying “this is an excellent sun cream; I don’t need it anymore, take it”.  After she left I looked at the tube which read “SFP 100”. I had never seen SFP 100, and what does that mean anyway?

In most people’s minds, the higher the factor the greater the guarantee of good protection. This is actually nonsense, or at least misleading, as it turns out a high level of chemicals heated by the sun on your skin can transform into a harmful cocktail. It’s difficult for parents like me to chose a good sunscreen in the jungle of products and marketing messages clamouring for attention. Here’s what I’ve learned with a little research, and a little help from my mother in law, who is a professional chemist and oncology professional in Washington DC.

The most important facts about sunscreens for children:

  1. Use UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum sunscreens that block out UVA and UVB rays which all European sunscreens and most American ones do.  An SPF   30 is sufficient according to the latest findings by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Higher SPF’s do not give more than 1-2% extra protection and can contribute to skin cancer because the chemicals are stronger.
  2. Reapply sunscreen every 40 minutes if going into the water, otherwise every 2 hours.   No sunscreen will protect for more than 2 hours.
  3. Do not buy any sunscreens that contain hormone disrupters: oxybenzone,  octinoxate, benzophenone; and Vitamin A which can contribute to skin cancer. A very important article (link here) on EWG website is a must-read for all parents – it gives an excellent summary of the dangers for children of chemical substances and their danger for children.
  4. Also avoid the following chemicals: parabens, phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA) and do not use any sunscreens that contain nano-particles.  These are used to break down the mineral sunscreens made with zinc or titanium oxide into finer particles. The nano particles do not leave a white residue which many of these products otherwise do.
  5. Avoid sprays and powders – they can enter the lungs and eyes.
  6. Do not use any “combination bug repellant with sunscreen” – it’s too dangerous.
  7. Whenever possible use hats and shirts as protection from the sun for children.
  8. Stay out of the sun during the hours of 10 – 2 when the sun is the hottest

Best of all actually is to expose the body to the sun with no protection at least 5 minutes a day, avoiding the 11am-3pm time frame. It will increase the Vitamine D levels in the body. This need to be done with precaution, and probably better avoided with kids who have ultra fair skin complexions (pale tone, blue eyes).

Extra reading :

– UPDATE FROM JULY 2014 : An article from the Telegraph, confirming what above – click here.

– Nine surprising truths about sunscreen here

– A simple/straight forward article in French here

– Don’t scream for sunscreen here

– The creation of the Sun-Scare here