Mama’s Doctorate in Sunscreen

Our first installment of Fun in the Southern Summer Sun:

Obviously, I don’t actually have a doctorate, I just figure if Jenny McCarthy can give herself one in “Google Research”, well I can promise you I’ve looked into sunscreen just as much. The next thing you are wondering, I’m sure, is “Why the hell would you spend as much time as you say you have learning about sunscreen?!” Simple answer, I have a child that was born so fair-skinned we used to joke that she was see-through. As you know I’m the proud mommy of 3 kids, what you may not have noticed is that between myself and my kids we have such ranging degrees of “white” skin color that I have made the joke that I am raising a Caucasian UN. I am dark  for being Caucasian, I haven’t had a sunburn, until I was in my mid 20s it never occurred to me that I should even wear sunscreen anyway, despite the no burning. BoyChild II, is similarly colored, he uses a light brown crayon to draw pictures of himself. He once was describing appearance to me due to somebody telling him at school he was white (they were making charts) and said, “I can’t be white, I’m tan, not as tan as Joel (whose mother is originally from Ivory Coast, and is slightly lighter than her) but I am more tan than Jorge (who is a lighter skinned Mexican American boy who lived next door to us at the time). Now {GirlChild}, she’s white!”He was about 6 at the time. That leads me to GirlChild, at birth she was very pale, black curls, but that pearl white skin. Other than adding a few freckles over her 14 years, she hasn’t darkened at all. BoyChild I is in between the other two, not dark enough to be questioning ethnicity, but I’m pretty sure his butt would reflect light. (I’m also pretty sure I should never let him read that I wrote that last part)

As a new mother of my porcelain looking baby, who was born in May, I was petrified of her getting in the sun, pretty much ever. I had no idea what to do with skin that fair to protect it, visions of a toddler with skin cancer due to her negligent mother danced through my head. It was obvious she should always wear sunscreen, I wasn’t completely clueless, but past that I really didn’t know anything about the stuff. I also knew that she had the most sensitive skin I’d ever seen, that child could get a rash  from certain brand’s dye free/scent free baby wipes, so I was petrified of rubbing ANY chemicals into her skin. My younger sister was fair and blonde and I totally remembered her getting sunburned and how miserable she was, I considered it to be a huge mommy fail if I couldn’t keep my little girl burn free. (Ahh the sleep-depravation inspired idealism of early parenthood…)What was a new mommy to do? I asked. I asked the pediatrician, I asked my mother, I asked strangers in the park, I read articles in parenting magazines, I went to the library and researched the hell out of it. (this was 1998, we had internet, but not like we have internet now, at least we didn’t at my house) What I’m about to share with you is what I learned then, and what I have learned since then about sunscreen. Some of this is based on various doctor’s advise, some on current health articles (which I have tried to source as many of as possible), and some of this is my own experiment with my mini UN.

Side note: the first sunburn GirlChild had been at daycare when she was 2 because they wouldn’t let her have sunscreen reapplied there during the day, in June, what with it being a “topical medication” and all,  I pulled her out of that daycare after that. She didn’t get another sunburn until she was 5, in my defense it was a sunny day (but only 55 degrees) in early March, who gets sun burnt in March?! Lesson learned. She has never had a severe burn, but I’m still kinda afraid of her being outside of my supervision (that’s when she usually ends up burnt, although 2 years ago she did get a sunburn on her legs riding inside our SUV with me, so stones/glass houses/etc), and by my supervision I mean out with her friends, at school, or with grandparents who forget (ahem). 

If after you read through this you have a correction to make or something to add from your own wealth of knowledge, please share! I am always learning new things.The questions I asked:

First: What does sunscreen do?

Sunscreen boosts your skin’s ability to protect your body from UVA & UVB radiation. Oh, well that’s clear… no, not really. Simply put UVA=wrinkles and most skin cancers, UVB=most sunburns. Sunscreen can help protect you from one or both of these, you want both. Look for phrases like “broad spectrum protection” and “multispectrum”, these will help shield from both. Melanin, the stuff that gives your skin color, is your natural SPF, the SPF (Sun Protection Factor) in sunscreen helps boost your melanin’s abilities (think of it like Spinach for Popeye). SPF measures how must boost at a time you are getting. SPF measures the boost it gives your melanin to protect you from the UVB rays, all the sunscreens are about the same if they are protecting you at all from the UVA rays. You can find SPF anywhere from 2 to 100 (new this summer). The chemicals that are in sunscreen are more concentrated the higher the number, this is not necessarily a good thing. These are strong chemicals, they do powerful things, they can therefore irritate the hell out of a baby’s (or anyone else’s) skin if they are overly concentrated. I made a snide comment about a daycare not allowing sunscreen, but in truth, it is a topical medication, treat it that way. (think of it like this; my kid takes a multivitamin every morning after breakfast, good idea; vitamins are good so I will give my 4 year-old 5 multivitamins every morning after breakfast, iron poisoning/vitamin OD, bad idea) Any time I have asked a doctor, pediatrician, etc about a recommended SPF I have gotten the same answer, for the last 14 years, so I’m going to stick with it. SPF’s actual help increases at a reasonable rate for SPF 4 through 30; however, after that there isn’t truly much difference (even with 100-I checked yesterday with the Pediatrician). But the increase of rash and other skin irritating chemicals continues to increase at the same rate all the way through from 4 to 100. As the parent of a very sensitive skinned child I learned early on dye-free/scent-free was the way to go, and so she still uses SPF 30 “kid/baby” sunscreen to this day. As it says in a NYTimes article I found:

The Truth: The bump in protection offered by higher SPFs is minimal. For example, SPF 15 sunblock screens 93 percent of the sun’s UVB rays, while SPF 30 protects against 97 percent and SPF 50 against 98 percent, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Now you are probably wondering, so why have anything other than 30? Well, just like the kid taking 5 vitamins, too much is not better. I told you I put 30 on GirlChild, but BoyChild I uses 15 and BoyChild II uses 8. (The boys have never had any sunburns while with me, BoyChild I got one once at his grandma’s house, but he told me that he wasn’t wearing sunscreen until he was outside for “a while already”-which could mean an hour or two to an 11-year-old)

Second: Does this stuff go “bad”?

Everything goes bad eventually. Sunscreen is like a Disney Child/Tween Star; more exposure it gets,  the more harsh/less effective/less likely you want it on/around your kids. Humidity (hello, welcome to the south, where it can be 98 degrees, 100% humidity, and it NOT be raining, for a week or two-but it is hard to breathe then), direct sunshine, and heat all work to break down sunscreen. (I’m talking about in the bottle, I will get to on your skin in a minute) The more times sunscreen gets broken down, the more quickly it has to go into rehab, sorry still on that metaphor, the more quickly it will expire. With normal use (trying to eliminate these factors & mostly succeeding), 1 bottle of sunscreen will keep for about 1 summer, maybe slightly into fall. (this is why it can be silly to buy those industrial sized bottles, especially if each family member has their own SPF needs. It’s only a better deal in bulk if you can use it before it goes bad, like that 10lb tub of peanut butter…) Expired sunscreen can cause irritation and rashes that look worse than a sunburn (I have actually seen this). Always check the date on a tube you are about to purchase, if you are in doubt, get the tube in the back of the shelf & ask someone. (I once picked up a tube that said exp 2006 in April of 2009!) The folks at Good Health advise:

 Most sunscreens, however, have a date of expiration stamped onto the label. There is usually a string of letters and numbers. If the string ends in a number, that is the year the sunscreen will expire (ex: 2004 = 4) Please see the attached link for further details

What about that bottle at home? Pour some into your hand when it is room temperature. Did it pour (loose, very liquidy)? Then trash it. It should come out like body lotion or body butter. (this is why I hat the spray ones, it’s impossible to tell if it is less viscous)  Now, look at what is in your hand, has it changed (in any way) in color or smell?  Then trash it, color & smell are caused by chemicals, would you give your kid expired antibiotics or vitamins? Exactly. Like with food, when in doubt, throw it out!

Third: How can I make sunscreen work the best?

So we know that heat/sunlight makes the stuff expire more quickly, but how do we keep it out of the sun & heat but still, well, use it? Actually it’s simple and helps with how to make it most effective for your body as well. Sunscreen take about 30 minutes to reach it’s labeled SPF potential. That’s right, you put on sunscreen when you got outside, were out there for an hour & got burned? It didn’t wear off, you didn’t have any SPF protection the first 1/2 hour you were out there! A good rule of thumb, experiment and see what works best for you, is apply 30 minutes before you go outside, reapply every 2 hours.

*I actually found a quote from a doctor after I typed the first draft of this that backs me up (having a smart day :)*

Use enough sunscreen, and use it correctly, experts say. “Make sure you are applying at least an ounce to all sun-exposed areas,” says Badreshia-Bansal. She recommends reapplying every two hours.

Sunscreen works for about an hour and a half to 2 before it starts to deteriorate if you are, well, experiencing summer AT ALL. Things that speed up your sunscreen’s loss of ability to protect you: Sweat (duh, it’s summer), water (pool, sprinkler, water balloons, ocean…), heat (if it breaks down in the closed  bottle think about what it’s going through on your skin), humidity (you know the combo of heat and water).  The (much smarter than me) folks at WebMD had this to add:

Mexoryl (ecamsule), a UVA blocker approved in 2006 by the FDA, was judged as effective in a report on the sunscreen ingredient in a study published in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in 2007.

But the EWG found in its literature search that as much as 40% of Mexoryl can degrade within two hours, Sutton says.

 If you were wearing sunscreen indoors it could protect you for longer, but even then it’s still only a couple of hours, which is why putting sunscreen on you kid before school to protect them at recess (unless recess is at about 9:30 am) is pretty pointless. You can ask you pediatrician top write your child a prescription for sunscreen wearing, this is what I did so that GirlChild was allowed to have such a dangerous drug in school. (Make sure your Pediatrician is specific; use this SPF, apply to this much these areas, this many times per day; just like any prescription) My favorite line regarding this is:

You can’t just slather yourself with sunscreen in the morning, head out for a long day at the beach and expect to come home sunburn-free.

Learn it, live it. I will make one note regarding that bottle you are going to reapply the sunscreen with, ideally you are toting it in the cooler along with your water bottles. If you forgot about hydrating (shame on you), put it in your purse, diaper bag, kid’s book bag/gym bag, beach bag, under the towel, somewhere out of the direct sunlight.

Fourth: What else can help with sun protection?

Some things are obvious, stay inside during peak sun hours, wear a hat (of course, don’t forget water acts like snow and reflects light up, sun burnt chins are lame), wear light weight protective clothing… There is something you can do to help your clothing’s UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor- how they measure an article of clothing’s ability to keep the UVA & UVB rays off of you skin), wash summer wear in Sun Guard, there are other brands, but this is the one that I like. 1 “dose” lasts through about 20 washings and adds about 30 UPF into clothes. UPF can be figured using this example in order to apply it to practical purposes: 50=1/50th of UV light can get to skin. I will warn you their website claims the following (which is in part slightly inflated if you use the above formula):

Blocks more than 96% of the sun’s harmful rays.

Another thing to keep in mind, dry skin is more likely to become irritated in the summer sun, even when the humidity is 80+%. Use after sun lotion, even if there is no irritation or burn, that dry, tight feeling after your shower is from damaged skin, help it. I like this one:

I have noticed, as the kiddos have gotten older, they abjectly refuse to rub any lotion into their faces (preteens & teens & their acne problems… yay). The fact that burnt skin is more prone to acne does not spur them on to use sunscreen. But I have found an oil-free sunscreen for faces that *gasp* doesn’t even irritate GirlChild’s skin! I buy them in the small book bag/purse sized tubes & both of the older two use that stuff religiously when they are both at home and away.

Fifth: What about if I mess it up?

So you thought you got it right, or you did and life happened. Your kid is pink/lobsterish/whatever undesirable shade they are, now what? After you stop beating yourself up (been there) you have to treat the burn. DO NOT use after sun lotion on a burn! That’s like the whole butter on a burn thing, it’s a MYTH, it causes more harm than good. Use an Aloe based gel. It will help better than anything else I’ve seen. You can go with traditional like this:

Or you can get the REALLY good stuff that’s slightly numbing (it numbs with menthol) like this:

Or this one works great too:

Feeling ready to spend the weekend outdoors? I know I do. Bring on the Banana Boat!

*I am recommending products in this article I buy and use. I have not been paid for any recommendations, nor did I receive any free products. (Although I would welcome any free sun care, that stuff gets expensive!)*


5 thoughts on “Mama’s Doctorate in Sunscreen

  1. A friend pointed out to me that I should have included this info:
    SPF 2: 50% of the sun’s rays blocked.
    SPF 15: 94% of the sun’s rays blocked.
    SPF 30: 97% of the sun’s rays blocked.
    Minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number = maximum sun exposure time
    (I didn’t originally include this formula, because I think you should ask your Pediatrician & if you are using the formula, you’ve had a sunburn; but if you have the info to fill in this formula you can increase your chances of avoiding the next one)
    But seriously, keep in mind that you have to use your best judgement, as a Mom/Dad/Person. Hope this helps either way! 🙂

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