Sunscreen (or sunblock) is an important part of sun safety because it protects our skin by absorbing and/or reflecting harmful UVA and UVB radiation. However, there is concern about some of the ingredients used in sunscreen products. It is important for parents to understand the various kinds of sunscreens available in order to decide which ones are best for their children.
Types of Sunscreen Ingredients
Reading the label on a bottle of sunscreen can be quite daunting. Here are some basic points about the types of ingredients contained in sunscreen.
These ingredients absorb the energy of UV radiation before it affects the skin.
Most sunscreens contain several active ingredients because no single chemical ingredient blocks the entire UV spectrum (unlike physical sunscreens). By combining several chemicals that block different types of UV radiation, a sunscreen with broad spectrum protection can be produced.
Many of these sunscreens contain UVA-absorbing avobenzone or a benzophenone (such as dioxybenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone), in addition to UVB-absorbing chemical ingredients.
Chemical ingredients can cause skin reactions, including acne, burning, blisters, dryness, itching, rash, redness, stinging, swelling, and tightening of the skin. These issues are most commonly associated with sunscreens containing para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) or benzophenones.
Some sunscreens also contain alcohol, fragrances, or preservatives that can cause allergic reactions.
These ingredients reflect, scatter and absorb both UVA and UVB radiation before it reaches the skin.
Offer stronger protection than chemical-based sunscreens.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two types available.
Provide broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection.
Rarely cause skin irritation.
Concern: According to Environmental Working Group, these ingredients are nano- and micro-sized particles that can be toxic if they penetrate the skin. Most studies show that these ingredients do not penetrate through skin to the bloodstream, but more research is being done.
One in five sunscreens on the market in 2010 is mineral-based.
Some sunscreens combine both chemical and physical ingredients.
There are currently 17 active ingredients approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be used in sunscreens. The following table lists these ingredients and includes information regarding the type and amount of protection they provide.
IngredientAmount of ProtectionChemical (C) or Physical (P)UVAUVBAminobenzoic acid (PABA) MinimalExtensiveCAvobenzoneExtensiveLimitedCCinoxateLimitedExtensiveCDioxybenzoneConsiderableExtensiveCEcamsuleExtensiveLimitedCHomosalateMinimalExtensiveCMenthyl anthranilateConsiderableExtensiveCOctocryleneLimitedExtensiveCOctyl methoxycinnamateLimitedExtensiveCOctyl salicylateMinimalExtensiveCOxybenzoneConsiderableExtensiveCPadimate OMinimalExtensiveCPhenylbenzimidazoleMinimalExtensiveCSulisobenzoneConsiderableExtensivePTitanium dioxideConsiderableExtensivePTrolamine salicylateMinimalExtensiveCZinc OxideExtensiveExtensivePSource: http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/doc/sunscreen.pdf
Oxybenzone is the most common active ingredient in sunscreen, found in approximately 60 percent of sunscreens on the market today. Experts have raised concerns about its use in sunscreens for children because of its ability to penetrate the skin, cause allergic reactions, and potentially act as a hormone disruptor.
Choosing the Best Sunscreen
Given all of these concerns about ingredients, it can be quite challenging for parents to choose a safe sunscreen product for their children. Environmental Working Group has just released its 2010 Sunscreen Guide (http://www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen/) that ranks about 1,400 sunscreens based on their safety (toxicity level) and effectiveness to protect against the sun’s harmful rays. This is one resource that parents can turn to before purchasing sunscreen.
* For children over 6 months, apply sunscreen with SPF of at least 15. Look for broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect from both UVA and UVB rays.