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Sunscreen safety— choosing the right sunscreen for your family

By Olivia Paul, Naturopathic Doctor

With summer well under way, it’s likely that you’ve been enjoying family barbecues, splash pads with the kids and getting into all sorts of fun under the sun. And while you may be slathering on sunscreen as often as you remember, depending on the sunscreen that you are using, it’s possible that you may be exposing yourself to the harmful chemicals that are commonly found in conventional sunscreens. Sun filters, SPF, oxybenzone…do you know what these terms are and how they affect you?

SPF, Demystified

It’s a common thought that the higher the SPF, the more effective the sun protection. But this is not necessarily true. SPF stands for “Sun Protection Factor” and it only indicates protection against UVB rays— not UVA rays. This is important because while UVB rays cause burning of the skin’s superficial layer, UVA rays cause significant damage deeper into the skin’s layers and this results in skin aging. Always look for “broad spectrum” when choosing your sunscreen— this will ensure you are protected from both UVB and UVA rays.

It’s also worth noting that a higher SPF number doesn’t actually provide significantly more protection. For example, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays while SPF 50 blocks 98%— thats a mere 1% increase in protection. Don’t let a high SPF number give you a false sense of security!

Mineral Sunscreen

Mineral sunscreen is a safe choice for sun protection.

Many sunscreens achieve their SPF rating by way of chemical sun filters, such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, etc.. Besides being terribly hard to pronounce, these chemicals are also terrible for your health. They’re known to cause skin irritation, hormone disruption and as they enter our environment, they’re causing bleaching of our coral reefs. Think twice before putting something that damaging on your delicate skin.

A better option is a mineral sunscreen. Not only does it offer broad spectrum protection, but a good mineral sunscreen will be free from those chemicals.

What mineral protection should you be looking for? Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the mineral filters you will most commonly find. They work by creating a physical barrier on top of your skin that deflects the sun’s rays away.

Many sunscreens are available in aerosol formats now for ease of application. While thiis might seem like a great idea, the propellant gas that is used to create the aerosol is dangerous when inhaled and is a risk to the environment when released into the air. It can be particularly challenging to have a tiny kiddo hold their breath while spraying sunscreen onto them – you may have experienced this. I know we have!

The safest format is lotion – using a lotion will also ensure a thorough application— using a lotion instead of a spray also makes it less likely that you’ll miss any spots during your application.

Read the labels

To make a really safe choice when selecting sun protection, always read the labels. Look out for these ingredients and avoid them entirely: PEGs, oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, mineral oils, synthetic fragrance, and silicones.

Other things to consider when having fun in the sun:

  • Off hours—Plan your outdoor activities for early morning and late afternoon when the sun isn’t so intense
  • Check the UV index daily before planning your outdoor activities.
  • In addition to sunscreen, use clothing as protection: hats, shirts and sunglasses that cover delicate areas like your scalp, ears, nose, shoulders and eyes.
  • Ensure there is shade nearby for the kids to “cool off”
  • Hydrate- dehydration happens very easily in children and infants, ensure they are drinking water every hour and look out for symptoms of dehydration such as fussiness, fatigue, nausea, and skin redness.
  • Reapply!— Sunscreen needs to be reapplied every 2 hours, and more often if you are swimming or sweating.

Now that you understand safe sunscreen, take a look at the ones you have been using and make the appropriate changes so that you have peace of mind that you are well protected while enjoying the glorious sunshine of this summer.

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