Do your kids ever get burned at school?
Not the bully-in-the-hallway kind of “I got burned!” that hurts the reputation, but the pink-skinned sun damage kind that just…hurts.
When the sun starts really meaning business during the noontime recess, I know a lot of parents slather on the sunscreen to protect their kids from nasty burns, and they’re likely also hoping to avoid the dreaded C-word for their children’s skin as they age.
Particularly on days like my son had today – field day, with tons of outside time – I know parents are thinking about the harmful rays of the sun. The popular media has made sure of that.
It kills me.
Scary: Chemical Sunscreens
Because I learned a lot in my search for the best natural sunscreen, I know how conventional (chemical) sunscreens work.
Once you apply, you’re locked in. Final answer.
If you don’t reapply in two hours, you’re going to do more harm than good to your skin (or your child’s skin).
It freaks me out how many well-meaning, loving, educated mothers out there put sunscreen on their kids before school to protect them during lunch recess outside…when in reality, by noontime that sunscreen is so deep that it’s definitely not going to protect anything, and it may be bouncing free radicals around the child’s inner skin.
Those well-meaning parents are really doing something like this:
- About 8:00 a.m. – Parent puts sunscreen, SPF 30 or above most likely, on their children. Child complains. Parent tells them it’s for their own good.
- 8:20 a.m. – Chemical sunscreen has sunk into the skin far enough to grant protection from the burning rays of the sun. Child is safe from sunburn, but is most likely still riding the bus or doing their morning welcome work at their desk.
- 10:00 a.m. – Sunscreen has drifted deeper into the skin, deep enough for two things to happen:
- The protection from the sun’s burning rays is now gone.
- Chemical sunscreen is effective via a chemical reaction with the sun, and chemical reactions have byproducts. In this case, the byproduct is free radicals – cancer causing reactive molecules, which are now deep enough in the skin to cause some real damage. Yep. Skin cancer.
- 11:30 a.m. or so – Child actually gets outside for recess. The sunscreen is now totally ineffective and potentially reacting with the sun, sending off bursts of free radicals deep in the skin where they are setting the child up for way more problems that a little pink tinge on the skin.
How does that make sense? Sunscreens causing skin cancer?
EDIT/UPDATE 2015: I learned new information from a biochemist in this interview, and he told me I was a little inaccurate in this post. The petrochemical sunscreens don’t degrade and create free radicals until they’re IN the sun. So unless the child in question tallies up two hours waiting for the bus, at morning recess, etc. before the noon recess, the sunscreen is still likely doing its job. However…what about all those times plus lunch recess plus coming home to play after school? And honestly, we’re splitting hairs here, because the reality is that petrochemical sunscreens are SO bad for you, this little piece of info doesn’t even matter. The endocrine disruptors, increase in allergies and asthma, environmental persistence and carcinogenic qualities of the chemical components of these sunscreens put them solidly in the “do not belong anywhere near your skin” category anyway. It’s just not worth the risk!!
Zinc oxide based sunscreens, on the other hand, do NOT degrade at all and remain effective on your skin all day long, as long as the cream itself isn’t wiped or washed off. The choice is clear…
Here’s how you can combat the awful cycle:
- Once you apply a chemical sunscreen, you MUST reapply after two hours. The new layer of sunscreen will block the old stuff from reacting with the sun and protect you from the free radicals.
- Two hours after applying chemical sunscreen, if you can’t reapply, get OUT of the sun.
- Consume tons of antioxidants, which are in a way the battle soldiers against free radicals. Antioxidants found in food or even skin lotions (good ones) can stop the cell damaging chain reaction that free radicals set in motion in your body. Of course, we’re bombarded with free radicals in everything from the air we breathe to the water we drink to the slightly charred burger from the grill…so you already need your antioxidants. Why create a need for more on purpose?
- Just get a light base tan gradually as the spring warms up, such that 15-20 minutes outside, even at high noon, isn’t a problem for your skin.
- Or if you have very light skin or simply haven’t been able to get a base tan (or don’t want to), just use mineral based sunscreen (preferably with zinc oxide) and protect your family from skin cancer without causing skin cancer!
I just sit here and shake my head thinking about it.
That’s why I’m going to talk about this every summer, to everyone I know, trying my darndest to explain in easy-to-swallow sound bytes how chemical sunscreen works, why we need to avoid it, and how easy it is to just switch to a natural sunblock.
I hope my bulleted list explanation above gives you a good cheat-sheet for talking with loved ones and convincing them to try a natural sunscreen instead of the chemicals.
If you want to go deeper and understand more…well, my friend, keep reading…
New Terms: No More “Sunblock”
When I first started teaching about sun protection, I explained that sunblock is the term for mineral-based creams that sit on the surface of the skin and reflect the UV rays, and sunscreen is chemically-based and absorbs into the skin, effective because of a chemical reaction that happens under the skin.
All of that is still true except the terminology: the term “sunblock” is not allowed by the FDA on sunscreens, which are classified as a drug.
They’re now differentiated as “physical barrier” and “chemical” sunscreens.
Thanks, FDA. Much clearer now…
Just remember to look for zinc oxide as an active ingredient Titanium dioxide is also safe, but only in combination with zinc since titanium dioxide by itself doesn’t protect from the aging effects of the sun (UVA) very well, just the burning rays (UVB). In other words, titanium dioxide is not “broad spectrum.”
You don’t want any other active ingredients, period.
Badger has an excellent tutorial on particle size and lots more on zinc oxide right HERE.
More sources and information here.
What About Vitamin D from the Sun?
A lot of people (and science, too) say that you shouldn’t wear sunscreen because your body needs sunshine to create Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, a strong immune system, cancer protection, and cardiovascular health.
The very best way for your body to get Vitamin D is directly from the sun, which is nearly completely nixed with even a low SPF 8 sunscreen. You must have some sun exposure without any sunscreen at all to make sufficient Vitamin D.
In fact, you probably need sun exposure without sunscreen during midday when the sun’s rays are the strongest. About 10-20 minutes will do, depending on who you ask, less time for lighter skinned people and more for dark skinned individuals. Sounds like lunch recess to me…
In this document, Dr. Robert P. Heaney, of John A. Creighton University, a professor and co-founder of the Creighton University Osteoporosis Research Center, confirms the timing:
“If we spend all day indoors or go out only in the early morning or late evening, then we simply do not get sufficient ultraviolet radiation from the sun to make enough vitamin D.”
And strangely enough, “Over twice as many people will be struck with a health issue because of Vitamin D deficiency as will be affected by overexposure to the sun.” Read more at my Vitamin D/skin cancer/sunshine post.
One more strange caveat: Washing your skin with soap for 48 hours after good sun exposure can diminish and deplete the Vitamin D your body is creating from the sun! That doesn’t mean you can’t shower, but just avoid using soap on all that skin that doesn’t really get stinky, like arms and legs (maybe shave with water?).
Do you go Outside at Noon?
In my relatively short eight years as a mother, the recommendations I tried to follow have shifted from, “Apply sunscreen all day, every day,” to “Stay out of the sun between the hours of 10a-4p and use sunscreen otherwise,” and now I see more, “You can’t get enough Vitamin D before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., so you really should get 15-20 minutes of sunshine right at noon, then go inside (or apply natural sunscreen?) for the rest of the day.”
What’s a mom to do?
Sometimes it feels like our health is going to rule our lives – I can’t imagine telling my son that he has to stay inside between 10-4 but for 20 minutes at noon. Talk about killing his hockey-loving, tree-climbing, tag-playing social life! I can’t be that structured, but it’s good at least to understand the way the rays of the sun work (through the current lens, which hopefully is getting sharper and closer to the truth each time the tide shifts).
If I’m out before 10 or 11 a.m., we don’t use anything. If we go out between 11-2ish, I try to let the kids play a little and then apply sunscreen. If it’s after 3:00, I let them go without. We don’t do a lot of hiding from the sun or organizing our activities based on time of day and intensity of rays, though.
I just have to hope that we all get enough Vitamin D and avoid the sunburns.
Note: I was reading my own post from 2010 on sunscreen, skin cancer, Vitamin D and more to remind myself of the particulars for this post, and I have to say – it’s really comprehensive. I must have had more time on my hands back then!
If you want to know more and find more scholarly sources for this information about UVA vs. UVB rays, awful health risks of chemical sunscreens, free radicals, SPF, and why people REALLY get burned, click here.
The Balance Between Safe Active Ingredients and Antioxidants
Even zinc oxide and titanium dioxide create free radicals when they interact with the sun to protect your skin from a sunburn. It’s safer because they sit on your skin instead of being absorbed down into your skin, but it is still a problem.
Any sunscreen worth its salt needs to include antioxidant ingredients to combat the free radicals. Some examples include olive oil, sunflower oil, Vitamin E, sea buckthorn oil, green tea, and many more. (journal article on antioxidants and skin cancer)
This is why I don’t really mess with making my own sunscreen. I’m not a real DIY person outside of the kitchen and basic cleaners, but also I wouldn’t want to worry about finding the balance between the best amount of zinc oxide and the right antioxidants. It’s easy to tell if your homemade sunscreen is effective to protect from sunburn, but much harder to tell if it’s still allowing (or causing) future health problems.
Antioxidant ingredients are something to keep your eyes open for when you buy a natural sunscreen.
What is a Nano-Particle, Anyway?
Another issue with mineral sunscreens that is quite a big deal is the size of the zinc oxide itself.
Zinc oxide is a white powder, and it takes quite a bit of it to get an SPF of 30 or above. Because it sits on the surface of the skin, zinc oxide sunscreens by their nature are going to make the user look pasty and white.
Manufacturers do their best to try to integrate the white powder into lotions and creams to minimize the whiteness on the skin, and one way they’ve tried to make a better aesthetic product is by reducing the size of the zinc oxide at a micro level.
A “nano particle” is a particle smaller than 100 nanometers, or 100 billionths of a meter. The problem with them and sunscreen is that they are small enough to seep into the skin, causing similar problems, potentially, as the chemical sunscreens. It’s a debated issue, but I feel safer with brands that choose not to use nano particles.
“Micronized” mineral particles are smaller than regular zinc oxide, but not small enough to impact your cells, just small enough to go on smoothly instead of literally gritty, like sand.
Evaluating a New Sunscreen for Yourself
Although I have personally reviewed over 40 mineral sunscreens, there are plenty, and more every year, that I haven’t gotten my hands on. Some that I tested three years ago have now reformulated, like the new Badger sunscreen (left) and the Kabana Vitamin D screen and tinted formulas. I have tested those and updated the post (Badger was put in just last week and is a HUGE improvement), but I can’t do it all.
If you’re looking at one of them with interest, you can determine for yourself if it’s a safe buy:
- Go straight to the ingredients.
- ONLY the two minerals (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) should be “active” ingredients. I prefer zinc oxide only myself, and definitely any titanium dioxide must be in conjunction with zinc.
- Only non-nano particles.
- There should be some sort of antioxidant included (Vitamin E, aka Tocopheryl acetate, green tea, etc.)
- No retinyl palmitate (synthetic Vitamin A).
- No parabens, synthetic or unlabeled “fragrances” – that’s a general rule for all body products.
- Check the ratings at EWG’s database, and remember to go into the individual ingredients. It’s possible for a product to be rated a 1 or 2 (very safe) and have one ingredient that is still hanging out at a 5 or 6 (not as safe).
- If you can pronounce all the other ingredients, all the better!
- Note: Many of the best mineral sunscreens (and none of the chemical ones) are rated “reef safe,” which means that they won’t be harmful to coral reefs, a big problem with some of these creams. That also means they’re biodegradable, which is a term that some cancer docs are telling their patients to look for, according to a reader recovering from cancer.
If you are a die-hard DIY person unlike myself and feel comfortable making your own sunscreen, I do have quite a collection of resources for you:
- Recipe for homemade sunscreen from MadeOn in the My Buttered Life eBook (summer edition) – comes free with the DIY kit, which has everything you need to make a batch and then some.
- How to Make Your Own Homemade Sunscreen Lotion :: Keeper of the Home
- Two sunscreen recipes (and one sun relief spray) in DIY Organic Beauty Recipes
- How to Make Non-Toxic Homemade Sunscreen :: Mommypotamus
Mommypotamus is one of my favorite fact-loving blog colleagues; her posts are always deeply researched and fascinating, like this one on how Sunlight Prevents Skin Cancer…
I hope you can embrace your inner science geek on this one, understand how chemical sunscreens work and seek to find a good natural sunscreen that works for you and your family, along with a healthy philosophy about sun exposure and Vitamin D that will keep your skin happy and your immune system rocking all summer long.
UPDATE: Here’s a post from the following week, responding to a medical professional who disagreed with me.
If you missed the links, here are the other sunny posts at KS:
- Sun, Sunscreen, Vitamin D, Skin Cancer: How Much?
- The Natural Sunscreen Review
- Sun Protective Clothing reviews
And some from Mommypotamus, who is an even better researcher than I am:
- Antioxidants vs. Sunscreen: Which Works Better? (a good list of must-eat foods)
- Many “Healthy” Sunscreens Accelerate Skin Aging
- How Sunlight Prevents Cancer
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon, Kabana, MadeOn, and DIY Organic Beauty Recipes from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase.