The best protection against sunburn is to stay in the shade, wear protective clothing, and avoid the noontime sun. My kids', and many people's, response to that would be, "Blah, blah, blah." So let's start with the assumption that you are going to be in the sun, sometimes for long periods of time, and sometimes in the noontime sun (gasp!).
Everybody loves summer, especially the long days at the beach, your community pool, or even your front yard sprinkler. But everyone hates the sunscreen wars -- those titanic battles where parents are trying to coat a wiggly, often wet, child with enough sunscreen to keep them from looking like a cooked lobster by the end of the day, or (often worse) convincing a recalcitrant teen that a little sunscreen is better than pain, blisters and peeling. Even adults push back against the use of heavy lotions on their own bodies.
The good news is that, soon, sunscreen labels will be more accurate and comprehensive so consumers will be better able to determine what SPF strength and how much (or little) sunscreen they will need to be protected.
Last year, the Food and Drug Administration issued new labeling rules for sunscreens in the areas of "broad spectrum" designations (protection from UVA and UVB rays), use claims (such as when a manufacturer can say that a product reduces risk of skin cancer), "waterproof," "sweatproof," and "sunblock" claims, water resistance claims, and drug fact labeling. Although originally scheduled to become effective now, the compliance date has been extended until December, according to a recent FDA update, to avoid a sunscreen shortage this summer.
Three examples of helpful information, from the FDA sunscreen FAQ:
- The law limits the maximum SPF value on sunscreen labels to "50 +" because there is not sufficient data to show that higher SPFs provide greater protection.
- No sunscreens are truly "waterproof" because all sunscreens eventually wash off.
- Prior rules on sunscreens dealt almost exclusively with protection against sunburn, which is primarily caused by UVB radiation from the sun, and did not address UVA radiation, which contributes to skin cancer and early skin aging.
When you read sunscreen labels, you will see a list of chemicals, about which you might understandably be concerned. After all, you are smearing this goo all over your children's bodies. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a list of top sunscreens, rating which have the best broad spectrum protection and the least hazardous chemicals. Consumer Reports specifically mentions these chemicals: "Oxybenzone may interfere with hormones in the body, and nanoscale zinc and titanium oxides have been linked to potential reproductive and developmental effects." But don't let the chemical risk prevent you from using sunscreen -- the risk of skin damage, even skin cancer, is greater than any risk associated with chemicals in sunscreen.
The bottom line: Read the labels on sunscreen as you do with many other products, and tailor your choices to your own needs. Add a few other steps from the American Cancer Society -- wear sunglasses, a hat, and a light long-sleeve shirt during the middle of the day, even on overcast days (UV rays travel through clouds) -- and you'll be good to go. Happy Summer!
By Beth Lovejoy, on behalf of the Summit Environmental Commission