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The Scoop on Sunscreens, Part I

It’s summertime, which in my
household means extended periods – and I’m talking
three or four hours at a pop – at our neighborhood pool.
Being the pasty white girl that I am, I worry about skin protection
– and with good reason. We’re burning faster than ever
before, and those freckles suddenly aren’t as cute as they
were when we were nine.

There’s a lot of confusing information out there about
sunscreen, and I’ve spent hours digging through internet
research trying to find out what’s best for my family. I
already make the girls wear the long SPF-material swimsuits that
cover their arms and legs – I call them the Amish Sporty look
– when we go during the day, but we’ve still got faces
and forearms and legs to cover. And while I often wear a rash guard
myself, I don’t particularly want the farmer tan that brings
two-tone biceps with it, so I want the absolute best sunscreen I
can find. Add to all of this my concerns about chemical absorption
in the girls and trying to use eco-friendly options, and suddenly
picking the right sunscreen seems a pretty tall order.

Luckily, I’ve found an invaluable
website that makes sunscreen shopping relatively painless –
though perusing through it can be depressing. href="http://www.ewg.org/" target="_blank">Environmental Working
, a national non-profit organization, has put together
an target="_blank">exhaustive look at pretty much every
sunscreen on the market today in the U.S. You can search by product
or brand name, or by type of sunscreen you want, and find out just
where your sunscreen stands. They also write in detail about what
ingredients you do – or absolutely do NOT – want in
your sunscreen, so you can be a savvy shopper. And when
you’re applying this stuff to kids multiple times a day and
spending ten bucks a pop on these bottles, believe me, these
choices are important.

Here are some of the highlights for you, but I encourage you to
read their article yourself:

First, there are two kinds of sunscreen – mineral, and
chemical. Mineral sunscreens typically give that tell-tale white
skin because of their zinc oxide – think white noses on life
guards. They physically block the sun from penetrating the skin.
Chemical sunscreens cause a, yep, chemical reaction with your skin
to make it less susceptible to the sun’s rays. While there
are pros and cons to both, in general it’s better to go with
a mineral block – less chemicals mean less chances to mess
with your kids’ systems.

The main problem with mineral sunscreens is the aesthetic angle.
It’s often got an oily feel to it, and usually leaves some
kind of a whitish-tint to your skin, leaving people to complain of
looking ghostly. On the health front, there’s been mild
concern about the use of nanoparticles in mineral sunscreen: in
brief, companies have been working to make mineral sunscreens
– sunscreens containing zinc and titanium – less
“white looking” and so have been using smaller bits,
called nanoparticles. There’s a very small concern that these
can be absorbed into your blood; EWG conducted a test a couple
years ago and found no evidence of that, and so highly rate mineral
sunscreens. So basically, mineral is the way to go.

If a mineral sunscreen provides a physical barrier to the sun for
your skin, a chemical sunscreen works a bit differently: different
chemicals in one sunscreen will absorb, reflect, or scatter
ultraviolet radiation, thereby altering how your body reacts to it.
Some chemicals work better on different wavelengths than others,
which means most sunscreens have a variety of chemicals in them. Up
until recently, most sunscreens only protected against UVB rays
– the kind that cause sunburns. More recently, manufacturers
have begun making sunscreens that also protect against UVA rays
– the kind which cause cancer. So you’ll want something
that covers both, or is broad spectrum.

So before we get to the chemicals themselves, here are the general
rules for sunscreen use. First, ANY type is better than none,
except for when it makes you cocky and you stay out way too long
thinking “I’ve got sunscreen!” Second, the time
to apply is not when you get to the pool, but when you get in the
car to go. Sunscreen should be applied about twenty minutes before
hitting the sun, to give your body time to absorb it. It should be
applied to dry skin, and should be reapplied when you get out of
the water or every 80 or so minutes. For us, we put on sunscreen,
do our hair, walk to the pool, swim, then reapply before eating
lunch so it can re-absorb as we eat. I know it takes planning ahead
and a bit of work – I really do. But it’s really

I know this is a lot to absorb (hah!) so I’ll stop here for
today. Next week, I’ll discuss the most common chemicals
found in sunscreen, which you should try to avoid, and make a few
recommendations of my own for you.


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