Sunscreen has become a pesky but necessary part of our daily lives, especially once you have kids that spend full summer days in the sun. Unfortunately skin cancer is the most common malignancy in the US, and sunscreens provide critical protection against harmful UV rays that can cause it.
Most of us have heard the terms UVA, UVB, SPF, reef-safe and most recently the debate on physical vs. chemical sunscreens…but what does it all mean for you? This blog post is meant to be your quick and easy primer on sunscreen - Sunscreen 101 for parents - and hopefully arm you with some basic info to make your sunscreen decisions!
Spoiler: Bubbsi isn’t launching a sunscreen soon since it takes years to develop and perfect … but we hope to one day!
First, a quick history...
When sunscreens were first sold commercially in the 1940s, their sole purpose was to protect the skin against sunburn primarily during the summer. The FDA began regulating sunscreens in the late 1970s by establishing SPF testing and labeling. And since 1999, the FDA is currently treating sunscreens as OTC (over the counter) drugs.
Over time, the public's usage of sunscreen and the FDA’s understanding of skin absorption and active ingredients have vastly changed. Sunscreen isn’t just for summertime sunburn prevention anymore - it's now often used year-round to protect the skin from sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer. Given this new knowledge, the FDA recently proposed a new rule where they are asking industry professionals to provide more information and testing on sunscreens to be sure they’re safe when used on a daily basis over time.
It's important to understand that all the research out there is still early and not totally conclusive, so my objective with this blog post is to help other parents understand some of the nuances of the information out there.
Let’s walk through three different factors to consider when choosing a sunscreen for your little one: 1) mineral vs chemical, 2) SPF level and 3) broad spectrum vs UVB.
Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreens
The main difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens is in their active ingredients. Chemical sunscreens use actives that penetrate skin cells, absorb UV rays, and dissipate them. Avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule are four common ingredients found in sunscreens and are being reviewed and further researched for their safety.
Mineral sunscreens contain minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that are made to sit atop the skin instead and create a physical barrier to reflect light rays. They aim to protect against UV rays without significant absorption into the skin.
A recent study examined four chemical sunscreens containing the ingredients listed above to understand the extent to which these chemicals are actually absorbed into the bloodstream of a daily user. Three of the chemicals were found in the bloodstream at levels higher than the FDA regulation limit after a week of use. For each product, the chemical’s presence in the blood stream increased each day, meaning there was proof of accumulation. This, however, is not proof that sunscreen is harmful. Instead, it illustrates something that we already knew - the ingredients we put on our skin are absolutely absorbed into our bloodstreams. The safety of those accumulations has yet to be determined, however until we understand more, we prefer to use mineral sunscreens which are generally regarded as safe and effective by the FDA.
But wait, there's more...
Even within mineral sunscreens, mineral particle size matters. "Nano" particles are smaller and more likely to get in the bloodstream, while "Non-nano" mineral particles are ideal because they are larger and more likely to stay on top of skin. This is also why sunscreens in aerosol spray form are not ideal, as they use mineral particles that are so small that they are often inhaled. Note that non-nano mineral sunscreens are also considered the best for the environment / ocean life.
SPF Max Levels
The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) number tells you how long the sun would take to affect your skin when using a sunscreen product exactly as directed. For example, SPF 30 means that it would take 30 times longer for UV rays to burn your skin than if your skin was left bare.
Research shows that SPF values between 30 and 50 provide adequate protection for even those most prone to sunburns. The FDA only recognizes a max SPF value of 60, meaning that anything above that doesn't have statistically significant additional benefit. So don't go crazy trying to get the highest level of SPF.
Side note: SPF is somewhat similar to UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) which is used to refer to a fabric's ability to protect from UV rays.
Broad Spectrum vs. UVB
The sun emits two types of UV (ultraviolet) rays that are detrimental to the skin:
1. UVB rays cause sunburns and are a factor in the development of skin cancer. A sunscreen’s SPF number is mainly associated to the amount of protection from UVB it provides.
2. UVA rays, on the other hand, damage skin which leads to tanning, skin aging, and wrinkles. Some UVA rays may contribute to sunburns.
On sunscreen packaging, the words “broad spectrum,” means the product contains ingredients that can protect you from UVA as well as UVB rays. While UVB rays are the main cause of a stinging sunburn, skin needs protection from both UVB and UVA rays. Sunscreens specifying “broad spectrum” provide the best coverage for your little one.
So what's the takeaway?
I know how hard it is to balance the overload of safety information out there with parenting practicality...especially in the world of sunscreens, where we're learning new things everyday. A few summers ago, I went down a rabbithole of paranoia and bought SPF 100 sunscreens to slather all over my kids. Now that I'm a bit more informed, I typically try to manage sun exposure in a few ways:
- Covering my little ones up with UPF hats & clothes (especially when swimming) so that I can minimize sunscreen use on their body
- Using SPF 30-50 mineral sunscreen (in lotion form) on face, neck and other highly exposed areas
- In a time crunch (or for quick reapplication by the pool), I also have chemical sunscreen that spreads much more easily and I'm ok using that every now and then.
Every parent has to find what works for them! After trying a range of sunscreens (for both kids & adults), my favorites right now are:
Blue Lizard Kids mineral-based sunscreen SPF 30 - the name is a bit misleading because this one has a mix of mineral and chemical actives. I just like it because it is fairly easy to spread all over and is somewhat moisturizing and non-sticky. Added benefit that the bottle turns blue in UV light to remind you to apply! They also make a 100% mineral version for sensitive skin, but I can't vouch for it yet.
Supergoop Sunnyscreen 100% Mineral Lotion SPF 50 - All the 100% mineral options I've tried are pretty sticky, but this one seems the least so. This is Supergoop's new baby & kid line, and I appreciate their expertise in sunscreens and their attention to user-friendly formulations like their chemical sunscreen mousse (if they made a 100% mineral mousse and we'd be set!)
As always, we recommend washing skin thoroughly after you're done in the sun to remove all sunscreen remnants and then applying a rich moisturizer to re-hydrate skin. Check out our recent demo where we used our Coconut Oil Balm to wash away sunscreen, leaving skin softer than ever!