With Memorial Day festivities behind us, summer has officially, unofficially begun—temperatures are nearing the unbearably hot mark, schools are letting out, and swimming pools will soon be packed to the brim. Which means it’s time to slather the family in sun-protecting lotion and head outside.
But even the most mindful and health-conscious parents can easily be confused by all the controversy and terminology surrounding sunscreen: “What’s the difference between sunscreen and sunblock?” “What should I be looking for in a sunscreen? What should I avoid?” Here, what to look for on your sunscreen or sunblock’s list of ingredients, what you need to know about chemical versus natural, and a few of our own favorite brands.
Natural and chemical brands alike may use the terms “sunscreen” and “sunblock” interchangeably, but officially, they’re two different things. Sunblocks are always mineral-based and sit on the surface of the skin—making them notoriously difficult to rub in (think the cliché lifeguard sunscreens that turn your skin white).
The active ingredients in these sunblocks are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both naturally-occurring minerals. Zinc oxide is thought to be the best natural sunscreen ingredient available because it blocks both cancer-causing UVA and skin-burning UVB rays, while titanium dioxide protects well against UVB rays and short UVA rays, but not longer UVA rays. It’s best to look for a sunblock that contains both minerals, but if you find that your child can’t tolerate zinc oxide, a sunblock with just titanium dioxide may be a good second choice.
Traditional sunscreens are generally chemical-based and work by absorbing the energy of UV rays before they penetrate your skin. Oxybenzone, a common ingredient most often used to absorb UVB rays, can be a hormone disruptor and may result in lower baby birth weights when used by pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In EWG’s 2011 Sunscreen Guide, they recommend going with either a mineral-based sunblock, or, non-mineral sunscreens containing avobenzone—a chemical UVA absorber which EWG has deemed safe as it has not been shown to penetrate the skin—not oxybenzone. Parents in search of a natural option should opt for mineral-based sun protection.
No matter what type of sun protection you pick, keep these things in mind before heading out:
Opt for a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and apply it 15 to 30 minutes before going outside. Remember, there’s no such thing as too much sunscreen, so apply it liberally—the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that people use enough to fill a shot glass.
You should reapply every two hours, more often if you or your child has been swimming, as waterproof sunscreen wears off about 80 minutes after being wet. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends avoiding too much time in the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (when rays are strongest) but make sure to remain extra vigilant about reapplying sunscreen if you are outside.
Here, a few safe, natural brands the whole family can benefit from:
Badger All Natural Sunscreen
This family-owned company provides sun protection in a variety of forms including a zinc oxide baby lotion and a face stick. Plus, their products contain organic olive oil, shea butter, and cocoa butter to keep everyone’s skin extra soft. ($3.50 to $16, badgerbalm.com)
MyChelle Dermaceuticals Sun Shield SPF 28
This everyday sunscreen is great for all-over protection, but it’s also superlight, making it perfect to wear under makeup. And it’s hard to beat the coconut-scented version, reminiscent of childhood days spent at the beach. ($19 for 2.3 ounces, mychelle.com)
Soléo Organics All Natural Sunscreen
This 100 percent organic sunscreen not only provides great, water-resistant protection–its packaging and container are made from 100 percent recycled materials, making it one of the eco-friendlier options available. ($25 for 2.8 ounces, soleoorganics.com)