Unless you're a chemist, shopping for a safe sunscreen can be completely overwhelming. Here's how to hone in on the healthiest options.
You don’t have to stock up on kid- and baby-friendly products—the adult formulas are just fine for little ones. The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t have specific criteria or additional requirements for sunscreen marketed to babies and kids, and “the EWG hasn’t identified any systematic differences between the types of products marketed to children and adults,” Lunder says, who was also the lead scientist on the EWG’s 2017 sunscreen guide. The only catch is that brands may be more likely to make mineral and fragrance-free options for kids (we’ll get into that more below).
Go low with the SPF
Figuring out what SPF (sun protection factor) you should use can feel like a straight-up numbers game. And when it comes to protecting kids’ vulnerable skin, it’s easy to want to grab the 100+. “Higher numbers actually mislead people by making it seem like those products offer more protection than they do,” Lunder says, who adds that the EWG’s report found the number of high-SPF products on the market continue to rise. “The SPF number may be increasing, but the extra protection is actually negligible. For example, when applied properly, an SPF 50 sunscreen will block 98 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF 100 will block 99 percent.” You don’t need anything higher than 50. (Check out the 5 worst skincare mistakes you're making.)
Reach for a lotion
Squeeze it, spray it, sweep it—there are a variety of sunscreen options. But when it comes to kids, you should go for the goopy white stuff in a bottle. “It’s best to avoid sprays for children,” Lunder says. “The ingredients in them are really irritating to both kid and adult lungs.” Another reason the EWG’s findings gave sunscreen sprays the smack down—it’s hard to make sure you’re properly covered because the clear, invisible application won’t help you see what areas you may have missed.
Know your ingredients
There are two types of sunscreens on the market: chemical-based and mineral. The latter uses zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are stable in the sunlight, offer a good balance of protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation, and don’t contain potentially harmful additives, Lunder explains.
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Chemically formulated sunscreens, may break down when exposed to UV light if not formulated well, and contain two to eight ingredients. “One ingredient we’re worried about in chemical sunscreens is called oxybenzone,” Lunder says. “It’s a hormone disrupter, and there is no end to the tricks they can play on our bodies, including telling cells to die prematurely to competing with essential nutrients.” The EWG recommends steering clear of any lotions that list it on the label.
And another add-in that you may be misled by: Vitamin A. Sure, it sounds good-for-you—a highly powerful antioxidant. But actually, according to the EWG, research has found that animals who had creams applied that had Vitamin A in them and then spent time in the sun developed lesions on their skin. (A bright spot of news: The EWG’s report revealed that the majority of blockers dropped Vitamin A from their ingredients—only 14 percent of the products surveyed listed it as an ingredient.)
Related: 5 Skin Cancer Warning Signs That Are Incredibly Easy To Overlook
Instead, opt for a mineral option that uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. “They don’t penetrate through the skin, so there’s no concern with how they may affect organs,” Lunder says. They’re also non-allergic, which is great for sensitive skin. “The concentration of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide should increase along with the SPF,” Lunder says. “Beware of products with very high labeled SPF and low concentrations of minerals.” That means they must be using other “inactive” ingredients to boost the SPF value.