What you should know about sunscreen safety

Memorial Day Weekend is traditionally thought of as the unofficial start to the summer. It is often marked by family trips to the shore, barbeques outside, or gathering with friends at the local pool. While all this time outside is fun, don’t forget to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging rays.

We all know wearing sunscreen can prevent skin cancer and signs of aging, but it can be difficult to figure out which ones provide the best coverage. It’s also easy to lose track of time and forget to reapply. And no matter how diligently you think you’ve applied it on, the sun always seems to find that spot you missed. Read on to get the basics you need for picking out and using sunscreen:

Sunscreens 101

In general, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends using broad spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15 or higher – even on cloudy days. “Broad-spectrum” refers to sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB rays, two types of the sun’s radiation. Sunscreen should be applied 15-30 min before going outside, and it’s recommended to reapply every two hours, or more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating.

Mineral-based vs. organic sunscreens

Sunscreen typically falls into two different categories: mineral-based sunscreens, and organic sunscreens. Mineral-based sunscreens contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and work by essentially forming a shield over the skin which reflects or scatters the UV rays. By contrast, organic sunscreens work by absorbing the energy of UV rays and converting it into heat energy, which is then dispersed across the skin. The most commonly used agents in this category include: avobenzone, octocrylene, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octisalate. As with anything else, both types have pros and cons that need to be considered before making a choice.

Mineral-based sunscreens are a great choice for people with sensitive skin. They are not absorbed by the skin, so they do not cause skin reactions. They are also very stable, and do not break down when they’re exposed to the sun. They also tend to be broader spectrum, and are better at blocking both UVA and UVB rays. One of the major drawbacks to this type of sunscreen – especially for people with darker complexions – is that they tend to leave a white residue on the surface of the skin. They can also lead to clogged pores, and result in breakouts.

Organic sunscreens are less likely to clog your pores, and will not leave a white residue behind, so they are often more desirable, however, they can be more irritating. The chemical filters that are used can cause a contact dermatitis, or rash, or even photosensitivity. The potential for skin irritation increases with the SPF. Organic sunscreens also tend to be less stable, and degrade in sunlight, meaning you will need to reapply more often.

Sunscreen lotion vs. spray

The FDA is still exploring the risks of inhaling spray sunscreens, according to the latest statement from Consumer Reports. Until we know more, it’s recommended to avoid using sprays on young children, and to avoid spraying them directly on your face. Instead, spray the sunscreen on your hands, and then apply to your face or child’s skin, if necessary. Otherwise, there’s not a significant difference between lotion and spray. The most important thing is to find a product you like, and are willing to use.

Which sunscreen is best for my infant?

The FDA actually recommends against using sunscreen on children under 6 months of age. Babies’ skin is less mature than adults or older children, and they have a higher surface-area to body-weight ratio. Both of these factors can result in higher exposure to the chemicals in sunscreens, which will increase the risk of side effects from the sunscreen.

The best way to protect an infant from the sun is to keep them in the shade as much as possible, and dress them in lightweight long pants and long-sleeved shirts with brimmed hats to prevent sunburn. Consult with your pediatrician before using sunscreen on your infant.

If you have any questions, or have an exposure, feel free to call your local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222, and a specially trained pharmacist or nurse will be happy to answer your questions.