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Sunscreen: What you need to know

Don't let all the chemical names baffle you: There are a few key ones to look for. Here's more practical advice, too.



A multipronged approach to sun protection is best: hat, sunglasses, shade — and the proper sunscreen.


Sunscreen is powerful stuff, but you need to know more than just remembering to wear it. It’s not all created equal and you need to be a bit of a label reader to make sure your kids — and you — are getting the best protection you can find in a bottle.

 

The options can be daunting. Mineral? Chemical? Nonchemical? Non-nano? What does all this stuff mean anyway, and will your kids be miserable, sunburned and on their way to a melanoma if you get it wrong?

 

One local doctor swears by the two mineral sunscreen ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. “For really young kids, physical blocks are the way to go,” said Dr. Ulrike Ochs, a dermatologist at Virginia Mason University Village Medical Center.

 

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are called physical blocks because they function a lot like having a piece of material placed on the skin. These two minerals protect your skin by forming a barrier and reflecting the sun’s rays.

 

They are sometimes available in formulations that contain micronized zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (made into tiny nanoparticles) which makes the physical blocks thinner and sheerer and much more pleasing to anyone who doesn’t want to work hard to spread a pastelike white cream into her skin.

 

The products that are usually called chemical sunscreens (among them active ingredients like octyl methoxycinnamate and oxybenzone, almost always with longish names ending in -ate and -one) operate by absorbing rays after a chemical reaction takes place with your skin. These chemicals are known to be absorbed into your system but are largely considered harmless.

 

Chemical sunscreens are much easier to find and often more water-resistant, but they occasionally lack avobenzone or zinc oxide, which are needed for complete protection against UVA, the rays that most likely contribute to melanoma and wrinkles. While UVB rays will make your skin burn, UVA does its damage silently, without any immediate indication that you’re getting too much sun.

 

Dr. Ochs strongly prefers the physical blocks, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, but as a mom, she knows that making older kids comply with wearing a chalky, pasty cream is really tough, too.

 

“Now my kids are teenagers, and they don’t want to look white. And so they fight me,” said Ochs. Her compromise: allowing chemical spray sunscreens, but with precautions, and often with physical sunblock dabbed on as an additional layer of protection on sun-sensitive parts of the face, such as the forehead, under the eyes and on the nose.

 

She noted that spray sunscreens are not for little kids, and they aren’t as reliable as sun protection, either. However, they are quite convenient for older kids who complain about putting on goopy lotions — and adults who don’t have the patience to rub in those spackle-like creams.

 

But make sure to wield the sprays carefully. As many parents probably wonder when people nearby are dousing the area with noxious-smelling spray sunscreen, it’s not a great idea to breathe all that in. “Nobody really knows what inhaling that spray does, so the better thing to do is not do it,” said Ochs. “Don’t inhale it.” She noted that it’s best not to use the mineral sprays at all.

 

If you do use a chemical-based sunscreen, remember that it takes time for the ingredients to react chemically with your skin (about 30 minutes), so you can’t just apply, head out and expect the stuff to work.

 

So, what should you look for at the store? To be adequate, sunscreens need to filter light from both the UVB and UVA spectrums. (Old-school sunscreens only blocked UVB, which unwisely opened people up to exposure to larger amounts of UVA.)

 

And expensive does not mean better. Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Bartell and Fred Meyer, for instance, sell many physical and chemical sunscreens that will protect well against UVA and UVB, as well as reliable products that combine physical and chemical ingredients. Remember: Make sure it has either zinc oxide or avobenzone as an active ingredient. And make sure the bottle hasn’t expired or won’t expire before you use it.

 

You don’t want titanium dioxide to be the only sunscreen ingredient in a product, as it will not adequately protect against the long range of the UVA spectrum. It will prevent you from burning, but meanwhile it will let in lots of UVA, too. You need to have zinc oxide with your titanium dioxide, whereas zinc can stand alone.

 

If you don't see zinc oxide or avobenzone (Parsol 1789), on the label, just put it down. It simply will not protect you from the full range of UVA rays. Meanwhile, to be photostable over time, avobenzone must be paired with other chemical blockers, usually octocrylene, or chemical combinations such as those found in Neutrogena’s Helioplex formulations.

 

When the kids go off to camp: Ochs advised parents to make sure they have an agreement with counselors about which sunscreen a child will use and how often it will be reapplied. (All products require application every two hours, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.) Use an SPF of at least 30, in accordance with American Academy of Dermatology guidelines. (SPF means sun protection factor, and it’s a measure only of how much protection against UVB a product offers. It is still crucial to check the active ingredients for a UVA blocker — zinc oxide or avobenzone — too.)

 

Time of day counts. Despite our rainy reputation, the Seattle-area sun gets scorching hot in summer, especially between the hours of 10 a.m.  and 4 p.m. “Between noon and 2, really, you should have an indoor break during that time if you can,” said Ochs.

 

Cover up as much as you can. Rash guards, longer swim trunks and other sun coverups are great at preventing burns and overexposure to the sun. Wide-brimmed hats or baseball hats with a long flap in back and sunglasses should also be worn in summer as much as possible, by kids and adults, according to the National Skin Cancer Foundation guidelines.

 

What about the winter? Since we are in such a famously cloudy town, do we need year-round sunblock? “I think it’s a great idea,” said Ochs. “UVA is a longer wavelength that penetrates through our cloudy days. And I try to get my kids to do it … I wear an SPF 50 physical sunblock on my face every day because ultraviolet light is just not good for your skin.”

 

To recap: Non-nano physical blocks (with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the only active ingredients) are the best protection, and the best bet for little kids. Reserve chemical sunscreens (always with avobenzone) for the older kids who are putting up a fight about icky, pasty sunscreen. And if you have to, use a chemical sunscreen spray  — but be very careful that none is breathed in.

 

Jillian O'Connor is a Seattle-based writer and blogger at jillconsumer.com

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