Of course there can be no definite, inarguable answer to the question of which sunscreen is safest for children, but Environmental Working Group has put a lot of time and effort into answering this question. They have given their safest “0” rating to only three sunscreens, but have given a very safe rating of “1” to 108 sunscreens. Narrowing this down can be overwhelming, so I’m going to describe my three favorites, and then talk more about why choosing a safe sunscreen for your children and yourself is worth the extra money.
We have used Badger sunscreen and found it to be quite effective. It gets a good rating in terms of being safe for children as a sunscreen. It is formulated with zinc oxide, which is unlikely to contain nano particles, and does a superior job of scattering UVA rays. The only downside for me is that even when thoroughly massaged in, the cream leaves a visible shiny matte on the skin. But who really cares about this aspect, and read below to see why I’ve come to this conclusion. Think of it as building character for your kids.
California Baby is the sunscreen my family has used for the past several years. It strikes a decent balance between cost, ease of use, and safety, and is generally easy to find in stores. The ingredients overall are given a great rating by EWG, but it gets dinged for containing Cymbopogon schoenanthus oil (also called lemon grass oil). This compound is obtained by steam distillation of grasses, and therefore gets a bad rating in terms of allergies. The sunscreen agent is titanium dioxide, which usually contains nanoparticles (which may pose additional health risks discussed later in this post). It does slather on effectively, and generally works well to prevent burns. Perhaps the best compromise between performance, cost and safety.
Butterbean sunscreen gets a top nod for safety, and is the one I am planning on trying next. The major problem is that a 7-ounce tub will run you $18, and 3 ounces $10. Ouch. But the ingredients are practically food grade in terms of coconut and apricot oil. To lend substance beeswax is added, and sourced from a local apiary according to the producer, who just happens to be a concerned mom outside of Atlanta, Georgia. It can only be ordered through her website, but if you don’t mind paying artisan-level prices, this seems great. The sunscreen agent used is also zinc oxide and assured to be free of nanoparticles.
So there you have the three sunscreens I am most familiar with in terms of being safe for children, and therefore by extension myself.
Avoiding the sun still the best means of protection
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of sunscreens is not their ingredients, but the false sense of security they lend. Perhaps you could truly find the safest sunscreen for children in the world, but if they are out playing soccer every day of their lives at noon, then this is really moot.
Total time in the sun may increase substantially for those who are misled into thinking that an SPF 50 sunscreen will block all UV radiation, and certainly prevent cancer. There is some evidence that regular application of sunscreen helps reduce the risks of squamous cell cancers. The evidence for basal cell cancer and melanoma is less robust. Some studies have actually found higher rates of melanoma in sunscreen users. The bottom line is that the question of whether sunscreens reduce skin cancers still lacks a consensus agreement on the answer. EWG says it better than I.
SPF ratings are based upon the sunscreen’s ability to scatter and block UV rays causing sunburns, typically UVB. UVA rays on the other hand, penetrate deeper and may be most associated with skin damage, immunosuppression, and melanoma.
Bottom line: Stay out of the sun during peak daylight hours. Wear protective clothing and a hat with a dorky wide brim. Avoid serious burns. But also understand that melanoma is a complex disease, and defies logic in several ways. People who work outdoors report fewer melanomas. Rates are higher in Northern cities compared to sunnier, southern ones. Most melanomas occur on areas of the body receiving less intense sun. In general researchers state to avoid sunburns, but perhaps not all sun exposure.
What are some hazards of sunscreen?
Certain ingredients may pose health risks. These include Vitamin A which has been shown to actually augment the formation of skin tumors. This ingredient is often listed as retinyl palmitate or retinol.
Oxybenzone can be found in half of the sunscreens out there. It soaks through the skin and has been found in the urine of children tested. It may disrupt the endocrine system, but some studies conclude it does not based on testing LH and FSH levels… but such high level regulatory hormonal feedback may miss low-level cellular signaling in my opinion.
What’s all this buzz about nanoparticles in sunscreen?
Nanoparticle sized titanium and zinc oxide are found in many sunscreens. By making the particles extremely small, products avoid the white chalky appearance one might recall from the past. It is difficult for producers to claim their products are totally nanoparticle free, and it is generally accepted that for titanium oxide to work it is by definition nano-size.
Here’s a counterintuitive truism: The smaller the particle size, the more clear the application, the better the SPF protection, and the worse the UVA protection. It is fairly safe to say that nanoparticles cannot penetrate the skin. The problem with these particles is mostly in terms of being inhaled, and the lungs have difficulty clearing such small particles in general, and this may contribute to carcinogenesis in the lung and other organs. Sunscreen ingredients have also been found to damage coral reefs, accumulate in fish, and disrupt amphibian and fish hormones.
In terms of nanoparticles, the medical reference UpToDate has this to conclude:
“…the integration of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles into sunscreens has raised questions regarding their potential percutaneous penetration and toxicity.
In vitro studies have indicated that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide may induce the generation of reactive oxygen species with and without UV irradiation, which is the proposed mechanism for its possible toxicity . Some in vivo and in vitro studies, however, have provided evidence that nanoparticulate titanium dioxide and zinc oxide do not penetrate beyond the stratum corneum.
In 2009, a review of studies on the use of nanoparticulate zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in sunscreens was performed by the Australian Government Therapeutic Goods Administration .The review concluded that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles do not reach viable skin cells, but they remain in the outer layer of the skin (stratum corneum) that is composed of non-viable cells.
Consider a vitamin D supplement
Most people who practice the current consensus to avoid excess sun exposure may end up becoming vitamin D deficient. Consider getting screened for deficiency, taking a supplement, and discussing this with your doctor.
So, what is the safest sunscreen for kids?
Hopefully this post has not been a complete rambling sham of confusion. As with any question, such as “What is the safest sunscreen for children?” looking for the right answer only leads to more questions and a deeper sense that we really don’t understand everything. And so that is where the intuition of experts can be a valuable mediator between conflicting variables. I’m not an expert, but from what I can glean from them, I would summarizes thusly:
Avoid sunburns, but not all sun exposure, wear protective hats and clothing during peak hours, and choose a sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and scores favorably in terms of ingredients, if only for your own sanity.