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07/14/2011

See Through the Sunscreen Smokescreen to Find Baby-Safe Protection

Kim-and-Lucca-Retouched-354x289By Kim Walls, M.S. 
Episencial Founder & CEO

This blog entry was originally published on the Episencial website.

Today we’re going to define some terms and talk about some of the ugly truths about the sunscreen industry.  Some of it may seem familiar, but read carefully–those labels can be pretty tricky.  Here’s a primer on what to look for which choosing safe, effective products for your little ones

Parents today are floating amidst a sea of controversy and confusion about proper sun protection for children. Frequent questions range from:  “How much sun protection do children really need?” to “What on earth is a nanoparticle anyway?” Many parents know that most sun damage occurs before the age of 18 and that preventing sunburn is essential for preventing ultra-violet induced skin damage, which can range from unsightly hyperpigmentation to deadly melanoma.  However, many people are not aware that too much protection from the sun poses serious health risks in the form of Vitamin D deficiencies that can lead to increased risk of cancer, reduced immunity, poor bone formation, and more.

Investing a small amount of your time in increasing your understanding and raising your awareness of the key issues at play will serve you well – giving you a foundation from which to make the informed decisions that are best for your family.

As a mother and skincare expert, I recommend using only all natural, mineral based sunscreens for both the safety of my children and that of the planet.

What Does SPF Mean?

SPF is an acronym for “Sun Protection Factor”.  Protective products typically range from an SPF of 2 to an SPF of 60. Recently, more products have come on the market claiming an SPF of 100 or more. The SPF factor refers to how much longer it will take the skin to burn with a given SPF product than it would take to burn with no protection at all. For example, if your baby’s skin is very fair and would usually burn after 10 minutes in the sun and you use an SPF 15 product, it would take 2 and 1/2 hours (10 x 15 = 150 minutes) for the skin to burn. So in theory, a higher SPF product provides longer lasting protection; however, you need to remember that product wears off with sweat, water, drool, and when the skin comes in contact with clothing, food, sand, dirt and so on. Even if you use a product that technically offers your baby 3 or more hours of protection, you still need to reapply the product at least every 2 hours to be safe. Also keep in mind that an SPF 20, for example, will probably provide you longer lasting protection than it would for your baby.  Your baby’s skin is probably fairer than yours and does not yet produce much melanin – the body’s own version of SPF.

How much SPF is enough?

If you’ve chosen a mineral sunscreen (with the active ingredients of zinc and/or titanium) then you’ll be hard-pressed to find a product with an SPF greater than 35. If the SPF is higher, look more closely at the ingredient label because you will probably find a chemical sunscreen ingredient.

The best SPF value for you or your child depends on what you will be doing and the season. A Zinc or Titanium-based sunscreen with SPF35 is just right for playing at the beach, park, or in the back yard and is perfect for newborn skin. Doctors recommend minimal sun exposure until at least 6 months of age, but if your baby will be exposed then the AAP recommends using an SPF product.

Remember that a great deal of UV exposure comes from reflected light off the ground and other objects, so a hat or canopy is not quite enough protection. Lip protection is also important to apply, and reapply often, as it is quickly wiped or licked off. Keep in mind that dry or damaged skin, as you might see with eczema, should be regularly protected, even during the winter, with an SPF of 6 or more.

SPF 35 will protect from about 97% – 98% of the harmful wavelength of UV rays.  There are all natural mineral based products available that do not leave a white residue and are affordable. An SPF of 50 or even 70 using a mineral sunblocking agent only adds 2%-3% additional protective value. Using enough mineral ingredient to achieve an SPF 50 or more generally results in product that is chalky white, sticky, hard to apply and can be very expensive. If a product claims to have an SPF higher than 35 and promotes a mineral sunscreen, then read the label carefully.  It is very likely that the mineral has been combined with a chemical sunscreen agent. When a company features an ingredient but doesn’t use enough of it to be active, we call it “showcasing”. Showcasing is a very common and misleading practice.  For example, zinc is often used as a featured ingredient that isn’t actually the key or active ingredient because it is significantly more expensive than synthetic chemical alternatives. Many manufacturers showcase zinc oxide, but then don’t use enough of it to provide actual sun protection. They must add synthetic chemical blocking agents to achieve the desired SPF. If enough zinc oxide is used, then the synthetic chemical ingredients aren’t necessary.
If you are looking for chemical-free sunscreen, which is what I make for my company Episencial and what I use on my boys, then you want an all-natural product that uses zinc or titanium as THE sunblocking agent.  Manufacturers of all-natural sunscreens use enough of these skin, body and planet-loving ingredients to actually do the job of protecting your skin from harmful UVA and UVB sunrays.

And now…a little chemistry lesson: Nanoparticles

As you increase your awareness of safety issues related to the skincare ingredients, you will probably run into warnings about nanoparticles – which some personal care product manufacturers use and can represent a potential health hazard.  Nanoparticles, particularly those of metallic ingredients, are so small that they are able to pass through the wall, or membrane, of cells in the body and into the bloodstream. Medical science does not yet fully understand the complications and risks associated with nanoparticles but it has been linked to liver damage, Alzheimer’s and other health problems.


Because mineral-based sunscreens use metals such as Zinc and Titanium as the active ingredient, it is helpful to understand that a particle of nano size is not the same thing as a nanoparticle.

A nanoparticle is any particle less than 100 nanometers in diameter (across). This can be confusing as a nano-sized material is not necessarily a nanoparticle. For example, a bulk ingredient material that has been reduced to 500 nanometers is NOT a nanoparticle because it is 5 times larger than 100 nanometers. As a point of reference, a particle must be less than 50 nanometers (a nanoparticle) to enter skin cells; less than 70 nanometers to enter the lungs.

Trying to fit a 100 nanometer particle into the skin cell membrane is like trying to force a baseball through a hole the size of a ping-pong ball. It is physically impossible. So, when choosing a chemical-free sunscreen, it is important to ensure that the manufacturer does NOT use nanoparticles of zinc or titanium.

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