We all know that sunscreen helps prevent sun damage that can lead to skin cancer. So it’s a no-brainer that we’re thinking about it more than ever as we head into summer. That’s why the recent study on how readily sunscreens are absorbed into skin (and can even be shed into breast milk) got our attention. With previous reports saying that oxybenzone, a chemical found in many sunscreens, can disrupt hormone production in boys, we knew we needed to find out more about this important topic. We asked Dr. Sara Perkins, a Yale Medicine dermatologist (and mom of two) all the questions we had—and hope they answer some of yours, too.
Q: What are the biggest things parents need to keep in mind this summer in terms of sun protection?
A: Sun protection is important all day, every day. Morning, late afternoon, overcast skies – your child’s skin is still being exposed to UV radiation.
Q: That was an eye-opening study that came out last week. Should we be worried that sunscreen chemicals are being found in the bloodstream?
A: There are a few key points here:
- The goal of this study was to advocate for further toxicology studies for active ingredients in sunscreen given that they are absorbed into the bloodstream after topical application.
- This study does NOT show, or even necessarily suggest, that the absorption results in harmful effects. Rather, the authors conclude that studies should be done to answer these questions.
- What we DO know, based on decades of data, is that ultraviolet radiation causes skin cancer.
- The study examined ingredients in chemical sunscreens (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule). While we work to better understand the significance of these findings, the safest thing to do is to use a physical sunscreen containing zinc or titanium, and wear sun-protective clothing.
Q: What about the reproductive disruption for boys as it relates to oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate?
A: As above, the significance and relevance of these associations is still being studied. In the interim, the safest option is to choose a sunscreen with zinc or titanium and wear sun protective clothing.
Q: What do you mean by “sun protective clothing?”
A: UV-protective clothing (hats, shirts, rash guards, swimsuits) is a great option.
Q: What about for kids under 6 months – is it still best practice not to put sunscreen on them?
A: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends against sunscreen for infants less than 6 months of age. These children should be kept in covered or shaded areas at all times. Kids under the age of 2 should be using only physical sunscreens (zinc and titanium as above).
Q: Exactly what should we look for on the label?
A: Two main types of sunscreen exist: chemical blockers and physical blockers. The former include ingredients like avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule. The latter include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Q: Why is testing any new sunscreen important before applying all over?
A: Ingredients in sunscreens, particularly chemical sunscreens, can be irritating or even allergenic. Testing any new product before widespread application is a good idea, though with physical sunscreens, this risk is quite low.
Q: Do kids really need sunglasses or are they just a cute accessory?
A: Unprotected UV-exposure increases the risk for a variety of eye diseases, including cancer. Use of sunglasses can be very effective in blocking both UVA and UVB radiation.
Q: Can kids get exposed to sun while in the car?
A: UV-radiation, particularly UVA, can penetrate through glass. While most windshields are treated to block UVA, the remaining car windows offer variable degrees of protection. Consistent daily use of sunscreen and sun protective clothing provides protection when in the car. Window tinting and window films are available for further protection, though state regulations regarding tinting can vary.
Q: Anything else moms should know?
A: These same recommendations apply to moms (and dads)! Be sure to set a good example. UV radiation also accelerates skin aging.
Want to see how your favorite brand stacks up in terms of safety? The Environmental Working Group’s list is a great resource!