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Does It Really Matter What Kind of Sunscreen We Use on Our Kids?

Photograph by Twenty20

Summer is here, and that means moms are going to be busy reading labels to see which sunscreens are best for their kids. But where, other than shopping aisles, is a mother supposed to find the safest products to use on a child’s delicate skin?

Thankfully, the consumer guide Environmental Working Group (EWG) narrowed down the search for parents, listing the 23 best-scoring sunscreens for kids on its website. But there’s a plot twist: CNN recently reported that it might not even matter which products you use—as long as you follow a few simple rules.

According to CNN, skin cancers—particularly malignant melanoma—often stem from early childhood sunburns, which is why sun protection is critical when your kids are playing outdoors. The best products to use, however, aren't always "made for children," so don’t be fooled by colorful packaging or gimmicky labels that look as if they were designed by a kindergartner.

So, what should parents look for?

First things first: Babies younger than 6 months old should skip sunscreen altogether and remain in the shade (think tree cover, long-sleeved shirts, sunglasses and hats with broad brims). If there’s no way around it—maybe you’re teaching your baby to swim or you're heading off to the zoo—the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using "sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide,” as they are less likely to irritate a baby's sensitive skin.

Next up, pay attention to the sun protection factor (SPF). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that sun exposure—specifically, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays—can "damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes." This means that SPF is one of the most significant factors when shopping for sunscreen, but how strong does it need to be?

Since the difference between SPF numbers is so minimal (e.g., SPF 15 blocks around 93 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 30 coverage only increases protection to 97 percent), experts agree that unless you’re fighting a disease that's photosensitive like lupus, SPF 50 is strong enough. (Experts also warn that extremely high SPFs can give users a false sense of security, sometimes discouraging users from reapplying.)

Even so, SPF only protects skin from UVB rays (aka "burning rays"), not the deeper penetrating UVA (aka "aging rays"). Therefore, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends finding a "broad spectrum" sunscreen, which uses a chemical barrier to absorb or reflect UV radiation. In other words, if the label doesn’t include the words "broad spectrum," put the bottle back on the shelf and find one that does.

So, how often do you need to slather sunscreen on your kids? Experts recommend applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen at least a half an hour before going outside and then reapplying every two hours or right after they're done playing in the water, because there is no such thing as "waterproof" sunscreen.

However, there is such a thing as "water-resistant" or "very water-resistant" SPF protection, which, according to the experts, gives children anywhere from 40 to 80 minutes of worry-free coverage while swimming, as long as they avoid using a towel to dry off.

As for what types of products are best suited for kids—oils, lotions, sticks or sprays—that’s entirely up to you, but it seems as if experts are leaning toward using lotions over sprays to avoid accidental inhalation or burns from getting too close to open flames.

Bottom line, find one product that works for everyone and stock up before hitting the beach. As long as you avoid the sun whenever possible, frequently apply a broad-spectrum SPF 30-50 sunscreen (with or without water resistance) and keep newborns in the shade, your kids should be ahead of the game.

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