Despite its ubiquitous use, parents still have many misunderstandings about sunscreen – largely because sunscreen manufacturers are frequently misleading in their claims. This information discusses everything parents need to know about sunscreen, from what the SPF labels really mean to what types of sunscreens are best for kids.
Myths & Facts About Sunscreen
Myth: Sunscreens are waterproof if advertised as such.
Reality: There is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen. All will wash off, rub off, or be sweated away. Manufacturers recently got in trouble for their “waterproof” claims. The most a sunscreen can be is water resistant, and even that claim is questionable.
Myth: “Baby” sunscreen means it’s tested safe for babies
Reality: Babies under 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight in the first place, and if you read the bottle, the fine print says to consult a doctor for use on infants this age.
Myth: SPF 100 is twice as good as SPF 50
Reality: As we’ll discuss shortly, there is no practical difference between SPF 50 and SPF 100. SPF 100 is good for sunscreen manufacturers, who use the label to price gouge you, but not much else.
What do SPF ratings on sunscreen really mean?
SPF numbers reflect how well a product screens out ultraviolet B (UVB) rays from the sun. UVB rays are what cause sunburn and contribute to skin aging and skin cancer. An SPF of 15 means that unprotected skin would burn about 15 times faster than would skin with a thick coating of the product. (It does not mean you can safely stay in the sun 15 times longer.)
However, the SPF rating says nothing about UVA rays, which don’t get as much attention, but which can penetrate even deeper than UVB rays and also lead to skin aging and cancer. Some sunscreens do not offer any protection against UVA rays. Look for products with avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or encampsule on the label, which help block UVA.
SPF numbers can also be highly misleading, since they are compounded number ratings, which means that as you go higher, they sound more impressive than they really are. In other words, since lower SPFs block out most of the sun’s UVB rays anyway, those higher numbers deal only with the increased protection as it relates to that small percentage that is left over. As Dr. Aaron E. Carroll and Dr. Rachel C. Vreeman explain, “there is a 1.6 percent or less difference between sunscreens with an SPF 30, 45, 50, and 60. Sunscreen with SPF 15 blocks approximately 94 percent of all incoming UVB rays. Sunscreens with SPF 30 block 96 percent of the UVB rays. Sunscreens with SPF 40 block 97 percent of the rays. The higher SPFs do block more UV rays, but it is not clear whether they are increasingly effective (in actual use) over the SPF 50 mark.” (Carroll & Vreeman, 2009, p. 54) When you buy SPF 100 over SPF 30, you’re not actually getting something that’s 70 times better – you’re getting something that might offer 1% more protection, usually at a much higher price.
Applying sunscreen to yourself and your child
Most people do not use nearly enough sunscreen. As Carroll & Vreeman point out, “Sunscreen SPF is tested using 2 mg. of sunscreen per centimeter squared of your body, which equates to two fingers length of product applied to each of the eleven areas of the body. If .you stay at the beach all day, you’d have to use up almost an entire six-ounce bottle of sunscreen in order to follow this recommendation. Since most people don’t even come close to following the official recommendation, the level of protection they receive from their sunscreen is probably half, or less than half, of what is described on the bottle.” (ibid, pp. 54-55)
Here are the recommended guidelines for applying sunscreen:
1) You should apply sunscreen to children about a half an hour before your outdoor activities. This gives the lotion ample time to bond with their skin. Ideally, you should then reapply about 20 minutes into your outdoor time. One study found this was more effective than waiting two hours (which is the standard recommendation) and then reapplying every two hours thereafter. If you do this, it should provide full protection unless you go swimming, wipe your skin with a towel, or sweat excessively.
2) Use around one ounce (2-3 tablespoons, or around the equivalent of a shot glass full) over your entire body. Apply it in dots to help it spread more evenly across the skin. If you’re using enough, your child’s skin should be reasonably white before you rub it in. Be sure to apply some slightly below your child’s swimsuit line, and around/underneath swimsuit tops, since these may shift as your child plays and you could end up with a localized burn right in those areas that were covered when you applied the sunscreen. Also be sure to include the hairline, upper lip, sides of the nose, earlobes, neck and upper chest.
3) It’s recommended that you reapply every two hours, possibly more if your kids are swimming or get excessively sweaty.
4) Always put on sunscreen before makeup if you or your kids are wearing both, and give it time to fully absorb into your skin before covering it with something else.
Best sunscreens for kids
A July 2011 Consumer Reports review of sunscreen rated the top 3 sunscreens for different SPF’s:
Best SPF 30 sunscreens:
- Banana Boat Sport Performance
- Coppertone Sport Ultra Sweatproof
- CVS Fast Cover Sport
Best SPF 40 to 50 Sunscreens
- No-Ad with Aloe and Vitamin E SPF 45
- Equate Baby SPF 50
- Walgreens Sport SPF 50
Best SPF 50+ Sunscreens:
- Banana Boat Sport Performance SPF 100
It should be noted that many sunscreens on the higher SPF list didn’t score as well as those on the lower SPF range, so we would recommend sticking with those in the SPF 30 to 50 ranges.
Everything parents need to know about sunscreen for children. Common sunscreen myths, understanding SPF ratings, how much sunscreen to apply, and more.