It’s time to start reading the label on your sunscreen. 

By Nicole Harris
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Not all sunscreens are created equal. In fact, some types contain synthetic chemicals that can cause skin reactions or hormonal disruptions – yikes! Here’s why you should avoid “chemical sunscreens,” and how to safely protect your child’s skin from the sun’s harsh rays.

Physical Sunscreen vs Chemical Sunscreen

Parents can choose between two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical.

Physical Sunscreens: “When physical sunscreen is applied on the skin, it sits on the surface of the skin to deflect the sun’s rays,” says Kathleen M. Cronan, M.D., an attending physician in the Department of Pediatrics at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. In other words, these mineral-based sunscreens create a barrier against the sun. The active ingredients in physical sunscreens include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. While physical sunscreen can be difficult to blend because of its thick texture, it starts working immediately after application.

Chemical Sunscreens: Chemical sunscreen absorbs the sun’s rays like a sponge, explains Dr. Cronan. The UV radiation turns into heat and scatters, which prevents it from penetrating the skin. Common active ingredients include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene. Chemical sunscreens absorb more quickly than physical ones, making them easier to apply. However, they work best 20 minutes after application.

Why You Shouldn’t Use Chemical Sunscreens

In February 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a rule to update sunscreen regulations. According to the FDA news release, “This significant action is aimed at bringing non-prescription, over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreens that are marketed without FDA-approved applications up to date with the latest science to better ensure consumers have access to safe and effective preventative sun care options.”

Part of the initiative would be reevaluating the safety of sunscreen ingredients. The FDA concludes that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – the main ingredients in physical sunscreens – are safe to use. It also says that 12 chemicals need further evaluation; these include oxybenzone, octinoxate, and others often used in chemical sunscreens.

According to Adena Rosenblatt, M.D., Ph.D, a pediatric dermatologist at The University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital, the harsh ingredients in chemical sunscreens could irritate skin, especially in those with sensitivity. What’s more, oxybenzone might disrupt hormones, causing long-term effects like early puberty.

Research published in Reproductive Toxicology in March 2019 also sheds a negative light on oxybenzone, claiming it can cause a birth defect called Hirschsprung's disease when used during pregnancy.

If the new FDA regulations are approved, they could confirm or deny the allegations against chemical sunscreen ingredients. For now, though, consumers should stick with physical sunscreens. You can tell a sunscreen is physical if the main ingredient on the label is either “zinc oxide” or “titanium dioxide.” On the other hand, the main ingredients in chemical sunscreen include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene.

Sunscreen Application Tips

No matter what type of sunscreen you use, it’s vital to follow best application practices. Dr. Cronan says to look for broad spectrum sunscreens that shield against both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen should also have an SPF of 30 or higher.

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises against using sunscreen on babies less than 6 months old because it may cause a skin reaction like contact dermatitis. Instead, try keeping your little one in the shade as much as possible. If you must venture into the sun, dress him in protective clothing like a wide-brimmed hat and long-sleeved shirt, and apply sunscreen sparingly on exposed areas.

For children over 6 months old, apply sunscreen 15 minutes before heading outside. “Reapply every two hours or after your child goes in the water,” advises Dr. Cronan. Make sure to spread sunscreen evenly on all exposed areas of skin – and if you’re working with spray formulation, don’t let your child inhale the product.

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