The Dark Side of Sunscreen


Whoever invented spray sunscreen was a genius. I know many of you moms and dads would agree. No more lathering up our fidgety kids, itching to get in the water, with all that thick white stuff that takes at least 120 rubs before Casper disappears and a child re-emerges.


A few long puffs of invisible spray … and you’re good to go.


Sort of. Recently, I’ve come across some disturbing and inconvenient truths about these spray sunscreens, as well as some of the more mainstream sun care products in general. And as much as it pains me to say this, I’m tossing the spray can.

And taking a closer look at what we’re putting on our skin.


In my big plans to live better, eat better, etc., I guess I’ve been more focused on what we’re putting in our mouths than what we’re putting on our skin. The skin, after all, is essentially drinking up what we give it, and along with the good SPF, the chemicals that come in many of these sunscreens (and other lotions and potions) are seeping their way into the body, as well.


As my friend Jamie put it as she started looking for ways to protect her son (who’s had some serious health issues), “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.”

Statistics show that our kids will be sicker than any other generation due to environmental factors beyond their control. And while I realize we can’t avoid every chemical out there in our modern world, when it comes to applying things directly to the skin, it seems to make sense that it shouldn’t be toxic.

Check the Ingredients

As it turns out, Vitamin A is one of the top chemicals to avoid in sunscreen, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Government studies have shown that on sun-exposed skin, vitamin A (often labeled “retinyl palmitate” or “retinol”) may speed development of skin tumors and lesions.

Another chemical called oxybenzone (found in more than 40 percent of beach and sport sunscreens) penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body. It can trigger allergic reactions, and has been linked to endometriosis in older women.


Rubbing these chemicals into your skin is probably not the best idea, but spraying them on is really not a good idea as it can pose serious inhalation risks, especially for kids, who are more likely to squirm around while getting sprayed. It’s also far too easy to apply too little or miss a spot. Even the FDA has expressed concern about spray products, yet we still see them out there on the store shelves.


These are just a few of the potential risks. There are more things to consider, like high “SPF” and “broad-spectrum” labels, which often are not what they claim to be. But I won’t rattle them off here. You can find out for yourself at, which includes a list of the safest sunscreens (and is really not as confusing as it may seem). The good news is there are some better options out there.


The EWG also offers some tips for using sunscreen with kids:

• If your child plans to swim and play in the water, look for a sunscreen that says it’s water resistant.

• Don’t buy sprays, powders and products with bug repellent.

• If spray sunscreen is all you have, spray on the hands first and rub it in, taking care to avoid the eyes and mouth.

• Infants under six months need special protection – a fair-skinned baby does not yet have protective melanin proteins and needs to be kept out of the sun.

• Make sure to apply sunscreen generously before you go outside, and reapply it often (especially if you’re spending a long day on the beach). Don’t believe claims that a product will remain effective for a certain period of time.


I’m grateful for this info now, especially as we dive into summer, but I can’t say I’m happy about it. These safer sunscreens tend to cost more, and letting go of the oh-so-awesome spray can is going to, well, suck.

But as I’ve found with most things, a little more investment on the front end is worth the rewards, and the protection, on the back. It’s just going to take a little longer to rub in.

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to cover up with plenty of gear.

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Here are some other recommendations:

SafeMama, a resource for information to help parents protect their kids:

Beautycounter, a company devoted to progress for safer skin care:


Post a comment to let us know what you’re using with your kid(s) …