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Sunscreen Chemistry

Well we are smack in the middle of the summer here in New England, and it’s been hazy, hot and humid for many days in a row. I don’t know about your family, but for me and my kids it is basically our cue to spend lots and lots of hours at the outdoor pool (at our local YMCA in Stoughton, MA; see HERE). You know what that means, right? Lots of sun exposure time, which means lots of sunscreen if I want to keep my children protected from the sun’s harmful rays. As a PhD-level chemist and mother of three young children, I have (unsurprisingly) some strong opinions on this topic:

There are two main types of sunscreens: physical blockers and chemical blockers. There are lots of other websites that go through some of the pros and cons of using physical vs. chemical blockers (see for example: HERE, HERE, and HERE) Basically, the difference is that chemical blockers contain chemicals that absorb the sun’s harmful rays and react to form a new chemical product, and that physical blockers contain chemicals that absorb the sun’s rays and physically prevent them from reaching your skin. They both contain chemicals (that’s right, everything in this world is made up of chemicals, see: but in one case the chemicals convert to form other products and use the sun’s harmful rays in that way, and in the other the chemicals act as physical blocking agents.

Which is better for you? It’s hard to say. Conventional wisdom on this says that the physical blockers are better because they have less harmful chemicals, but not much is actually known about the toxicity of the chemicals that are present in the physical blockers. The information that is known about the chemicals in the chemical blockers, though, is not encouraging (See HERE and HERE). The complicating factor here is that many of the physical blocker sunscreens are thick and white and pasty, all of which make them hard to put on, especially on squirmy young kids!

Honestly, whatever sunscreen you are able to put on your kids is better than the sunscreen that you can’t get on them. Our family uses Banana Boat spray sunscreen:

Always remember to follow the recommendations of the medical professionals on how to choose a sunscreen, when to put on sunscreen, how often to use it, and how to protect yourself and your skin!

Other helpful links:

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