Slather on the lotion! If you thought the breast vs. bottle debate was polarizing, wait until you talk to fellow playground moms about sunscreen. Though lotions and sticks protect little ones' skin from cancer-causing UVA and UVB rays, doctors advise new mamas to use physical barriers — SPF clothing, umbrellas, and shades — rather than lotions on babies younger than 6 months old.
Once tots reach the 6-month mark, though, we need to keep them protected from the sun without harming them in other ways. The Environmental Working Group's recommendations for the best sunscreens for tots — products that do not contain potential hormone disruptors — is considered the definitive list of safe options. According to EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews, it's inactive ingredients like retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) and oxybenzone that parents need to look out for. "By and large, the ones that do well in our database are the ones that are mineral-based products with a higher percent of zinc oxide, as well as some of the products with titanium dioxide," he said.
While parents have been getting the message about switching from chemical sunscreens to mineral versions, one of the group's biggest concerns is how parents are using them. "[Consumers] are looking to buy higher and higher SPF values," Andrews said. "When people use higher SPF values, we're concerned that it leads to a change in behavior and an increased time in the sun and that you apply less of it. Those products may not be as effective in blocking both UVA and UVB radiation. So we steer consumers toward SPF 30 to SPF 50 products and lower and we really think those are the sweet spot of the products that are available in the marketplace."
He went on to explain, "The active ingredients in SPF 30 and SPF 100 products may be quite similar. So we're going to be doing more over the course of the next year, investigating the inactive ingredients like the antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that may be reducing redness in the skin, but may not be reducing how much hits your skin. The way the SPF test is done is in changes in skin redness."
So what's a parent to do when trying to choose a safe sunscreen? First, check the EWG's site and app for a list of the safest and least safe options for your family. If you don't have that at your fingertips, Andrews recommends:
- Steering away from SPF products over 50. SPF 30-50 products depending on the situation are OK.
- Seek out products that use three percent avobenzone if they are chemical sunscreens or the ones that use zinc oxide as the active ingredient in natural versions. "[They] do the best job of filtering out UVA radiation across the spectrum of UVA radiation. Seek out products that use a higher percentage of zinc oxide — typically you'll find 15 to 20 percent, or three percent avobenzone."
- Look at inactive ingredients on the label. If possible, avoid products that use retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) and avoid products using oxybenzone.
- Avoid spray products — they're convenient but not the best choice. Why skip the convenience of spray lotions? "You don't get a uniform coating on the skin," Andrews says. Plus, "Given the concern about the ingredients in these products, we really don't want to coat the inside of our lungs with sunscreen."
Read through to see 10 of the EWG's top picks (many of which can be found at your local drugstore — not just at specialty stores).