Knowing Your Sunscreen

Summer is finally here and with it comes the sun and sunburns. While trying to apply sunscreen to a whining child who just wants to get into the water is no fun, it’s extremely important to protect your children, and yourself when outside this summer.

Here’s how you can keep your child well protected in the sun, without fighting World War III when applying sunscreen:

1. Choose a high SPF A sunscreen’s sun protection factor (SPF) is a measure of how long the product allows you to stay in the sun without getting burned compared to how long it takes you to get burned without sunscreen. If your child usually would begin to get sunburned in 10 minutes of sunlight, SPF 15 sunscreen coverage would mean that she could stay in the sun 150 minutes (10 x 15) without getting burned—but that protection assumes you apply the product correctly, give it time to absorb, and the sunscreen doesn’t come off during sweating, swimming, or rubbing. Play it safe by starting with a higher number. “It’s difficult to apply sunscreen in the thickness that is achieved in the laboratory during testing,“ says Dr. Silverberg. A higher SPF gives you a cushion; if there’s wear off due to activity you will have protection for a more extended time period.” Recently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) passed new sunscreen labeling rules that limit the maximum SPF on sunscreens to “50+,” because there is not sufficient data to show that products with SPFs higher than 50 provider greater protection than products with SPF 50.

2. Go for broad-spectrum High SPF is just step one in the sunscreen-choosing process. SPF reflects only a product’s ability to protect skin from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, the kind that cause sunburn, not necessarily ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, the kind that cause premature skin aging. If you see the term “broad spectrum” the product can screen out both UVA and UVB rays for more complete protection for your child.

3. Look for water-resistance The FDA’s new sunscreen labeling guidelines no longer allow manufacturers to call sunscreens “waterproof” or “sweatproof,” because these claims overstate their effectiveness. Look for products labeled “water resistant,” especially if you’re headed to the beach, pool, or anywhere that your kids are likely to get wet. Sunscreens labeled “water resistant 40” have been tested to remain effective for 40 minutes; “water resistant 80” sunscreens should last for at least 80 minutes.

4. Go chemical-free For many sunscreens, full protection means applying the sunscreen to your child’s skin at least a half an hour before he goes outside, to allow the product to bind to the skin and the chemical protection to begin working. Chemical-free sunscreens, which contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, sit on the skin and reflect light and start working right when you apply them. “Also, chemical-free sunscreens tend to go on white initially so you can easily see where you have applied it and where you haven’t,” says Dr. Silverberg.

5. Match sunscreen to skin type Sunscreen sticks can be ideal for use on the face; easy to apply, less likely to drift into the eyes. For acne-prone teens, sunscreen gels and noncomedogenic lotions are less likely to cause breakouts than heavy creams. Avoid sprays; studies show people under apply sunscreen when they use sprays, and they can also get into the eyes or inhaled into the lungs. Also, they can be flammable—something to keep in mind if you’re grilling outdoors.

6. Protect those lips, those eyes Unlike the rest of skin, lips don’t contain the pigment melanin which offers natural protection against the sun. Make sure your children use lip balms with SPFs of 15 or higher, and let them pick out a pair of sunglasses that they will enjoy wearing, and that have a label that says they screen both UVA and UVB light.

7. Reapply The FDA recommends reapplying sunscreen at least every two hours to maintain adequate sun protection.

8. Think outside the sunscreen bottle Hate reapplying sunscreen? Sun protective clothing can keep your child safe in the sun without reapplying sunscreen. Some sun shirts are meant for swimming, too. Look for clothes that have an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of 50. “Buy them so they fit loose,” suggests Dr. Silverberg. “It’s the tight weave that provides the sun protection, and if you have to stretch the material to get it to fit, you lose some of the protectiveness of the fabric.” Do not rely on a cotton tee shirt for sun protection – especially if your child is going to swim in it. “Tee shirts provide an SPF of only about 3 or 4,” says Dr. Silverberg. Still not sure if your child’s shirt is protective enough? Hold it up to a light; if you can see through it, UV rays can penetrate through it and your child won’t be protected, according to the SCF.

9. Do it yourself One good way to get your kids to protect their skin from sun? Wear sunscreen and protective clothing yourself, avoid the sun as much as possible during the peak sun hours of the day (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), and when you are outside, seek shade.

So you have your sunscreen, how do you know when to toss it?

For optimal sun protection as well as texture, stability, and sterility, use the sunscreen prior to the date listed. If you can’t find a date on a new tube or bottle, write the month and year you purchased it in permanent marker on the tube.

Sunscreens are tested in their actual containers, since plastics in the container may leach into the sunscreen and cause a chemical interaction. UVR changes the molecular structure of chemical sunscreens, so sunscreen containers should be opaque. Sunscreens are usually good for about three years. Toss it sooner if you notice obvious changes in its color or consistency; sunscreen exposed to excessive heat may break down before three years. Follow the directions and store it in a cool, dry place.

Using these products beyond their expiration dates means they won’t work as well. It might even raise your family’s risk of infection, because preservatives in the products can break down after expiration dates, allowing bacteria to grow.

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