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How to Choose a Sunscreen

Relax — the kids are all slathered up with a high-SPF, waterproof sunscreen to protect their tender young skin from the Texas sun. Time to sink into the cool waters poolside and enjoy having the upper hand against the summer sun, right? Maybe not. Thanks to suboptimal sunscreen formulations and misleading labeling, you might not be protecting your kids as effectively and safely as you thought.

Did you know that SPF ratings measure protection from only one kind of ultraviolet light — and that it’s the least damaging type, not the type that leads to dangerous skin changes including cancer? Did you realize that letting kids play in the sun a little longer because their skin is "safely" protected from sunburn could actually increase their absorption of more dangerous ultraviolet rays? Are the facts really in on the safety of those high-tech sunscreen ingredients, or should you be searching for healthier alternatives?

Despite the fact that putting sunscreen on our kids has become common practice drilled into every parent by pediatricians and the media alike, a fair amount of skepticism continues to cast doubt on product ingredients. Even dermatologists like Dr. Carolyn Kim, a member of the medical staff at Baylor Medical Center at Irving, point to a lack of conclusive research on controversies like photoreactivity of vitamin A in products designed for use in the sun, the safety of sunscreen filters like oxybenzone and whether or not sunscreens prevent absorption of vitamin D from the sun.

All of this leaves parents wondering if they should slick on more sunscreen or try something more natural instead. Are sunscreen ingredients fully vetted and safe? And, do sunscreens truly protect us in the way that we've come to count on? Take our quiz to see if you recognize the most common myths and misconceptions about sun protection.

True or False? Test Your Sunscreen Savvy

SPF ratings are key to choosing an effective sunscreen. False. SPF ratings tell you how well sunscreens filter the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that cause sunburn — but it's the ultraviolet A (UVA) rays that lead to the most dangerous types of sun damage, including cancer. For protection from both UVA and UVB rays, look for "broad spectrum" on the product label.

Super-high SPF ratings may do more harm than good. True. It's only human nature to stay out in the sun longer if you can do it without burning, right? But unless you are using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that also protects against UVA light, you're only lengthening your exposure to damaging rays, says Dallas naturopath Sharon Rabb, Ph.D.

The only difference between a chemical sunscreen and a physical sunblock is the way they go about protecting you from the sun's rays. False. Sunscreens rely on chemicals like oxybenzone and avobenzone to filter and absorb ultraviolet light. Physical sunscreens (often called sunblocks) rely on ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to physically block ultraviolet rays. (These are the products that leave a white film when you apply them; that's the zinc or titanium you see.) The key difference: by the nature of how they work, sunblocks provide broad protection against both UVB and UVA light. 

All sunblocks with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are completely natural and therefore safest for kids. False. Since kids wriggle, writhe and whine about streaky white sunblock, manufacturers have learned to shrink the particles through a process called micronization. Micronized particles in spray formulations can be inhaled, and experts wonder if they stay put on the skin's surface or get absorbed into the body through the skin (where they could cause unintended effects). Parties on both sides of the debate can cite studies supporting their claims; stay tuned.

We use a sunscreen made especially for sensitive skin (or for children), so it must be safe. False. Sunscreens are frequently loaded with suspect ingredients: PABA (a sunscreen filter linked to allergic dermatitis and photosensitivity), parabens and phthalates (linked to hormone disruption), oxybenzone (also linked to hormone disruption and allergic reactions) and even vitamin A (also known as retinyl palmitate or retinol and linked to speeding the development of lesions and cancer). Some of these photoreactive ingredients, such as vitamin A, don't show their negative qualities until they're exposed to sunlight, says Dr. Rabb, making their presence in sunscreen especially troublesome.
Sunblocks made with non-micronized zinc or titanium and other natural ingredients offer a healthy alternative to chemical blocks. True. "If somebody has a shadow of a doubt [about sunscreen safety], use a physical block," Dr. Kim says.
Sunscreen blocks the absorption of vitamin D from the sun. Maybe. The controversy over whether some sunblocks and ingredients can interfere with vitamin D absorption is far from settled — but the uncertainty shouldn't pose an issue for Texas kids, who get plenty of vitamin D from everyday activities as well as supplemented milk and food, says Dr. Kim. From September through May, Dr. Rabb suggests forgoing sunscreen to ensure kids get enough sunlight for optimum vitamin D production. 
There is no completely safe form of sun protection for kids. False. Specially designed UPF (universal protection factor) clothing like rash guards and floppy sun hats offer a completely chemical-free alternative. Made with tightly woven fabrics and perfect for swimming and active play, these designs work well for the whole family — there's even a luxury line for women, Cover (coverswim.com), created by a Dallas mom. 
Regular, effective use of sunscreen reduces your risk of cancer. False. As it turns out, getting judicious doses of sunlight could be just as or even more important than protecting skin with sunscreen. As the Environmental Working Group points out, "Every major public health authority — the FDA, the National Cancer Institute and International Agency for Research on Cancer — has concluded that the available data do not support the assertion that sunscreens alone reduce the rate of skin cancer."  
The trick to effective sun protection, then, appears to be a summer cocktail of tactics: dodging the brunt of the sun's rays, covering up when possible and filling in with a broad-spectrum sunscreen or sunblock with the fewest possible questionable ingredients. It's a tricky proposition for parents of kids eager to revel in the horizonless North Texas sunshine, but the time spent on sun protection strategies today offers protection that will last a lifetime. 

Published June 2014