Many parents question the use of chemical-laden sunscreens on their infants and young children. Even though sunscreens formulated for infants are technically “safe” to use, they may not be the most desirable option. Up until a few years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended against the use of any sunscreen on infants under 6 months of age due to unknown safety risks. They revised their statement in 2004, since damage from sunburn can certainly outweigh the risks of using small amounts of sunscreen when shade or protective clothing is unavailable. As a Naturopath, my advice to parents of young infants and children is to avoid the use of sunscreen and instead, make sure their child is wearing light weight protective clothing and a sunhat to avoid sunburn. Young infants should also be kept out of the heat since they are more susceptible to heat stroke due to their inability to regulate body temperature effectively.
So what should you look for when buying sunscreen for an infant or young child? Chemical-free sunscreens are less likely to cause rashes on sensitive skin and also much less likely to cause unknown long term harm. The active ingredients in these are either Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide and work by reflecting UV radiation. Some safer alternative chemical sunscreen ingredients that work by absorbing harmful UV rays include oxycrylene, avobenzone, and octisalate (these are less likely to cause long term harm, but may still cause dermatitis on sensitive skin).
Other ingredients in sunscreen lotions may also help keep the skin healthy and moist, which can add to the benefit of the active sunscreen ingredient. Aloe vera, calendula, green tea, cocoa butter, and shea butter are examples of ingredients that can help the skin. Be careful using products with too many added ingredients, since fragrances and plant extracts can cause skin reactions in some people, even if they are “all-natural”.
Non sunscreen protection is a must for young infants. This includes shade (an umbrella will do) or light weight clothing that covers the arms and legs as well as a wide-brimmed hat to protect the face and eyes. SPF clothing is another great option for babies and toddlers. An average wet T-shirt has an SPF of 6, while special fabrics made with a tighter weave can provide SPF protection of up to 30. It is also best to avoid sun exposure between the hours of 10am and 3pm, when there is the highest risk of exposure to harmful UV radiation.
Some chemicals to avoid (due to hormone disruption or possible carcinogenic effects):
Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate)–may accelerate skin damage and lead to increased cancers
PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid)–not used widely anymore since it commonly causes dermatitis
Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC)–disrupts hormones
The Environmental Working Group is an excellent resource to get more information about sunscreen safety and specific product recommendations. They compile an extensive amount of research on all of the chemicals/ingredients used in sunscreens as well as the efficacy of different sunscreens. For instance, did you know that many high SPF sunscreens (50 and higher) provide limited protection against UVA, which can accelerate skin damage that leads to certain types of skin cancers?
In order to be effective, most sunscreens should be applied 15-20 minutes before sun exposure and should be reapplied every 30-60 minutes, or more often if playing in the water or sweating excessively. Remember that when sunscreen is used, it blocks the body’s ability to make Vitamin D, so you may consider discussing Vitamin D supplementation with your child’s healthcare provider, as this is a common nutrient deficiency in many parts of the world. Also remember to protect the lips and eyes, which are more sensitive to sunburn. Sunglasses or a hat and special SPF lip balm are recommended in addition to sunscreen or other sun protection. Staying well hydrated is also important, since dehydrated skin is more susceptible to damage and sunburn.
If you have questions about specific products or are concerned that your child may be allergic to an ingredient in sunscreen, you should discuss this with your child’s healthcare provider.
About the Author: Dr. Bowker is a Naturopathic Physician and owner of Snohomish Valley Holistic Medicine. In addition to her clinical practice, Dr. Bowker serves as a Board member for the Washington Association of Naturopathic Physicians. She has also been a guest speaker for community organizations and instructor of several community health classes. For more information, please visit her primary website: www.snovalleyholistic.com