In families such as the Parker household in Agoura Hills, Calif., there’s one item that’s become as much a summer staple as popsicles: sunscreen. Destinee Kerr Parker, like other self-respecting parents across America, doesn’t allow her 2-year-old son Kekoa to go near sand, water or playground without at least a quick swipe of something with SPF.
“It’s sometimes difficult to get sunscreen on kids,” says Parker. “But I just view it as something we can’t live without. The pool and parks are right down the street and the beach is 20 minutes away. We’re getting sun literally every day."
Yet, Parker, who regularly has three or four different sunscreens labeled “waterproof” and “UVA/UVB block,” has also noticed something interesting about her arsenal.
“Some seem to work better than others but none of them work like you might think. We’ll be in the pool for an hour and get out and I see that Kekoa has a tan line. If they were working like they say they do, that wouldn’t be happening,” she says.
Parker is, in fact, echoing the complaints found in some recent lawsuits against several major sunscreen manufacturers. The suits, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in April, allege that the companies have falsely led parents to believe certain sunscreens provide broad-spectrum, waterproof protection for their children when they don’t.
So what’s the truth? Is it worth the trouble to slather kids with sunscreen or should we just throw in the towel this summer?
Dermatologists are unanimous: don’t let the suits convince you to ditch sunscreens.
“Sunscreens are still good, but what we know is that there isn’t a perfect sunscreen. That doesn’t mean, though, that the sunscreens don’t block the majority of the harmful rays,” says Dr. Mark G. Rubin, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Diego.
“Sunscreens, when used properly, definitely work,” says Dr. Chris Harmon, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology and a dermatologist in Birmingham, Ala.
At issue in the lawsuits is how the products are labeled and, ultimately, used by parents such as Parker.
Manufacturers often claim their products are waterproof, for example. “We know that no sunscreen is really waterproof,” says Harmon. At best, a sunscreen can be water-resistant.
Rubin agrees. “There’s good data to say that sunscreens (labeled waterproof) are effective immersed for an hour or even an hour and a half but nobody is just immersed when swimming — especially not kids. They’re flailing, agitating and splashing.”
Dermatologists say the solution is to reapply sunscreen a minimum of every two hours, no matter what the label says, and always after kids sweat, swim or towel off.
How much to use
How much sunscreen you put on your kid will also determine how protective it is. Sunscreens are tested and rated with Sun Protection Factors (SPFs) based on optimal use. Yet skin care pros admit very few consumers use the products the way they are tested.
“It’s sort of like tires,” explains Dr. Zoe Draelos, a dermatologist in Highpoint, N.C., and clinical associate professor of dermatology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. “A tire may be rated for 40,000 miles but because of the way we drive we never get that many miles. Products — all products — are rated under ideal conditions but they’re rarely used this way. I don’t think companies can somehow be held responsible for insuring how consumers use their products, though.”
Draelos notes that if manufacturers were held responsible for how consumers use or misuse their products, it would be “lawsuit city against corporate America.”
She says that if parents apply sunscreen to their children 30 minutes before going out, put it on on thick enough, reapply every two hours and don’t wipe it off, they’ll get “good protection.”
A rule of thumb is that at least 1 ounce of sunscreen should be used to cover the body with each application (that’s roughly one shotglassful of sunscreen).
Different kinds of UV rays
Yet, dermatologists also agree that proper application alone won’t solve all sunscreen problems. Another issue with sunscreens is that they advertise “broad-spectrum” coverage, leading parents to believe they are protecting children from both UVA (the rays associated with skin discoloration and sagging) and UVB (rays associated with burning and skin cancer). This is especially misleading when products claim a high SPF along with the words “broad spectrum” coverage. Most consumers are then led to believe the high SPF is blocking both types of rays.
However, the SPF number only applies to UVB rays. There are UVA ratings in other countries but currently in the U.S. there are no standard measures of UVA protection.
“The front of the bottle may say that it blocks UVA and UVB rays. Maybe it does this enough for labeling criteria but the truth is that the product may not be a very good UVA blocker,” warns Harmon.
Dermatologists say that, barring label reform, the only way to ensure adequate full spectrum protection is to be a careful label reader. There are only a few ingredients that work well to block or absorb UVA rays. Make sure your children’s sunscreen has an SPF 30 to block UVB rays and also contains at least one of these ingredients to block UVA: zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or avobenzone (parsol 1789).
Other options for protecting your family
Moreover, don’t rely solely on sunscreen.
“In fact, sunscreen should be viewed as a last line of defense,” says Harmon. “Sun avoidance is the first.”
That doesn’t mean staying indoors, though.
"It's a misconception that dermatologists don’t want you to go outdoors. We just want you to be strategic in how and when you do outdoor activities.”
If children can do outdoor activities in the shade or before 10 a.m. and after 3 p.m., encourage them to do so. They’ll get substantially fewer harmful rays.
Also, encourage the use of protective clothing. There is now surfer-inspired SPF swimwear (often called “rash guards”) and other clothing made of breathable, UV-shielding fabric. It’s difficult for very young children, but encourage kids to wear sunglasses to protect their eyes. Most importantly, try to get children to wear sun hats. A hat with a 6-to-8 inch brim all around is optimal.
“If kids wear a hat and a hat alone they’ll get the equivalent of an SPF 8 for the face, tops of ears and back of neck,” says Harmon.
Lastly, strongly discourage teens from sunbathing and visiting tanning beds. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute say each year more than 1 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed. Since 1981, the incidence of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, has continued to increase and has become the most common cancer among young adults. Many pros point their fingers at the popularity of tanning beds.
“There’s no way to live on this earth and not get radiation,” says Harmon. “The idea is to use everything in your arsenal — including but not only sunscreen — to minimize your sun exposure.”
“I’d never not use sunscreen on my son,” says Parker. “But regardless of what the label says I realize the best solution is shade.”
Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.