The Safest Sunscreens for Your Kids

Last Updated Jul 31, 2010 12:53 PM EDT

Like every mother, I want to do what's best for my children. So when it comes to the sun, I always slather them in sunscreen. But it turns out that some of the products I've been using -- including popular name brands found in pharmacies across America -- are potentially harming my kids.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit based in Washington, DC, studies sunscreens very carefully. According to its "2010 Sunscreen Guide" there are a couple of particularly harmful chemicals found in many sun lotions that parents should seriously consider avoiding. (Incidentally, these chemicals may not be so healthy for adults either.)

Before I go any further, I should mention that some experts disagree with the EWG's report. So parents should do some more research on their own. But I'm tempted to err on the side of caution since I want to do all I can to keep my kids healthy.

One of the most common and controversial chemicals found in loads of child sunscreens is Oxybenzone. Indeed, 26 sun lotions with the name "baby" on their labels list it as an active ingredient. The concern here is that Oxybenzone penetrates the skin and may disrupt the endocrine system, which regulates and processes hormones in the body. As a result, the EWG goes so far as to tell consumers to think carefully before using lotions that include this chemical in their formulas. Some household names that use it include, Panama Jack Naturals Baby's Sunblock, Banana Boat Baby Sunscreen Stick, and Coppertone Kids Sunscreen.

Another potentially scary chemical is retinyl palmitate, or Vitamin A. Companies advertise this as an agent that can decrease aging and wrinkling. If used indoors, it's probably safe. But in an article in the New York Times, the EWG points out that in at least one study retinyl palmitate caused tumors and lesions that were exposed to the sun to develop 21% faster. Although Vitamin A isn't as commonly found in kid sunscreens, I mention it because families often share one bottle of lotion.

Sometimes even if the active ingredient isn't toxic, how it's delivered may cause harm. The EWG strongly discourages parents from using spray sunscreens since they include nanoparticles that can get into a child's lungs.

Wondering what sunscreen is safe to use? If you want to use the EWG recommendations, you can go to its sunscreen guide and check out its rankings. I'll warn you, some of the group's favorite sunscreens can be pretty tough to find. I was only able to find two of them at an upscale pharmacy near me. Fortunately, all of these lotions are available online.

So what will I do now? I've just gone through my medicine cabinet and checked my sunscreens against the EWG's list. Four out of six products need to go into the trash because they scored poorly in the group's ranking system. I may be overdoing it a bit, but I don't mind taking extra precautions when it comes to my daughters' health.

Are you picky when it comes to buying sunscreen for your family? Or is any bottle of lotion okay?

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal. Financial Guidebook for New Parents.

Mila at the Beach image by Boudewijn Berends, courtesy of CC 2.0.

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  • Stacey Bradford

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