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Nine Sunscreen Questions: Answered

Nobody likes a sunburn, and at 5280 feet, the sun affects you more than you know. The good news is, you can protect yourself and your children by using sunscreen. The bad news is, there are so many products on that market that it is hard to know which ones actually work. Let's breakdown sun safety guidelines and the best practices for sunscreen use.

We think about sunscreen the most when the weather is warm, summer is swinging and kids are out of school. But sunscreen is important to use year-round. Children’s Hospital Colorado pediatric dermatologist Anna L. Bruckner, MD, answers commonly asked questions about sunscreen and delivers the goods on how to help your kids avoid the burn.

1. What should a parent look for when buying a sunscreen?

Parents should look for sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher labeled “broad spectrum,” meaning they protect against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. A sunscreen that’s labeled “water-resistant” or “very water-resistant” will provide the best and longest-lasting coverage, especially for outings to the park or pool.

Also check the active ingredients, and look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on the list — these broad-spectrum sunblock ingredients are less irritating if your child has sensitive skin. These ingredients are also recommended for sensitive areas such as the face, as they won’t sting the eyes.

2. What’s the difference between sunblock and sunscreen?

Sunblocks contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which physically block the sun’s rays by scattering ultraviolet radiation on contact. Sunscreens absorb UV radiation with chemicals. Chemical sunscreens also tend to burn the eyes if they migrate in that direction, whereas sunblocks with only zinc oxide or titanium oxide don’t. Sunblocks protect against a wider range of both UVA and UVB rays, though many products combine good UVB chemical sunscreens with a physical blocker for a higher SPF and broad-spectrum coverage.

3. What’s the difference between UVA and UVB protection?

UVB protection prevents sunburn. UVA rays — from the sun or tanning beds — don’t burn as easily, but they do penetrate deeper into the skin, causing leathering, wrinkling, and photoaging, as well as suppressed skin immunity. They can also cause cancer. The best sunscreens protect against both kinds of UV radiation.

4. Does sunscreen protect against all ultraviolet rays?

Sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum” protect against both UVA and UVB radiation. Be sure to check for this label when purchasing sunscreen.

5. What’s the difference between infant or kid sunscreen and adult sunscreen?

Baby and kid sunscreens often have the same active ingredients as the adult versions, but with cuter labeling and marketing. Your kids won’t be more protected with a "baby" SPF 30 sunscreen than with a "regular" SPF 30 sunscreen, if both are water-resistant and have the same active ingredients. However, some “baby” sunscreens may be better for infants, children and even adults with sensitive skin.

6. What’s the difference between sunscreen creams, lotions and sprays?

The active ingredients in sunscreen are great for the skin, but they’re terrible for the lungs. So when it comes to spray-on sunscreen, recent research suggests that kids (who are typically not great at holding their breath) are at increased risk for breathing in these chemicals. That’s why Consumer Reports recommends parents not use spray-on sunscreens on kids, at least until the Food and Drug Administration completes a detailed analysis that is currently in progress.

Lotions often contain moisturizers, which many people like. For kids, though, a thicker cream is best, as greasier products tend to have better water resistance and longer, more consistent coverage.

7. How much sunscreen should I apply?

About an ounce, or the size of a shot glass, to cover the exposed parts of your body. Apply sunscreen to skin indoors, preferably before dressing, at least 15 to 30 minutes before going out in the sun. Be sure to reapply every one to two hours, or sooner if you swim, sweat profusely, or towel off (check the label — recommended times for reapplication are usually between 40 and 80 minutes). For a day at the beach, one person should go through about 2 to 4 ounces of sunscreen.

8. How long does it take for sunscreen to wear off?

“Water-resistant” sunscreens are labeled to last 40 or 80 minutes. Most people apply only half the amount recommended, and not evenly, decreasing the SPF and allowing uncovered areas to burn. For best results, apply sunscreen evenly and often.

9. Bonus sunscreen tips, courtesy of Dr. Bruckner:

Sunscreen is only that — a screen. Higher SPFs can block the vast majority of the sun’s rays, but no sunscreen blocks 100% of them. Therefore, sunscreen should be a part of a total sun protection program that includes hats, protective clothing and sunglasses.

Avoid exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest and UV radiation is most intense. After 3 p.m. is a much safer time to take your kids to the pool. Finally, don’t forget that water and snow reflect UV rays, too, so faces and lips often need extra protection.