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Mom applying sunscreen to daughter

Chemical vs. mineral — breaking down the sunscreen controversy

It’s finally summer in Wisconsin, or at least it is according to the calendar. Even if we haven’t felt a lot of warm summer days yet, the sun is still strong and we need to be using sunscreen.

Having children who burn easily, I know well the trials and tribulations of trying to put sunscreen on a squirmy child or one who just wants to get outside. Also, being native to Wisconsin I know how hard it is to listen to the recommendation to avoid direct sunlight from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the rays are the strongest — we just want to be outside!


Before answering questions on types of sunscreens let’s review some of the basics:

  • Use sunscreen all areas exposed to the sun

  • Try to put sunscreen on 15-30 minutes before going outside

  • Use sunscreen even on cloudy days! 80 percent of ultraviolet (UV) rays can go through the clouds

  • Reapply often, at least every two hours, after swimming and if you are sweating a lot

  • Use more than you initially think you need

Is sunscreen safe to use on kids?

The short answer is yes. Sunscreen is an important tool for protecting kids from the negative effects of sun exposure. But if you’ve watched the news lately, you might be hesitant to use sunscreen because of stories about it potentially being toxic. While that may sound scary, nobody should be avoiding sunscreen.

Let’s break it down so you can feel confident using sunscreen.

Chemical vs. mineral

Two types of sunscreen are currently available — chemical and mineral — and they both have pros and cons.

Until recently, chemical sunscreens were the most popular option. These work by using ingredients like ensulizole, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, oxybenzone or avobenzone. They absorb into the skin, then soak up UV rays, turn the rays into heat and dispense them away from the skin.

Generally, chemical sunscreens are easier to put on and feel lighter on the skin. However, they are more likely to cause skin irritation and the two most popular ingredients (in the United States), oxybenzone and octinoxate, are currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They are currently used in sunscreens and may eventually be fully backed by the FDA as safe, but for now, be aware that these ingredients could potentially be bad for skin and the environment (more on that below).

Nowadays, mineral sunscreens are a popular alternative and are widely available. They work by using ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to physically block UV rays. They act as more of a shield on top of the skin. That means that they can be difficult to apply (think the old-school lifeguard with a white lotion on their nose) and can wipe off a bit easier.

The star of the show is zinc oxide as it does a great job of protecting the skin and is the gentlest ingredient we’ve mentioned. I recommend using a sunscreen with at least 5 percent zinc oxide and has an SPF between 30 and 50. Going above 50 does not add much in protection.


As mentioned above, oxybenzone and octinoxate are currently under review by the FDA. These ingredients must absorb into the skin in order to work and there is some concern that they could be hormone disruptors — or they could change how your hormone system works — which could be harmful.


They may also be a hazard for the environment. Hawaii passed a bill banning oxybenzone and octinoxate as they were found to damage coral. More states may follow suit so it might be easier to use mineral sunscreens until we have a definitive answer.

Ultimately, the FDA may find that these ingredients are totally fine to use, but for now, I recommend sticking with sunscreens that work with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide because they have already been backed by the FDA as being safe and effective. We will hopefully have more answers about chemical sunscreens later in 2019.

Application tips

Your sunscreen choice may depend on the ease of application as each product is different and kids can be squirmy. No matter which product you choose, it’s important not to assume all sunscreens should be applied the same. Read the instructions and follow them closely.

Chemical formulas take up to 30 minutes to soak in after application before working, while mineral formulas are active as soon as you put them on. You can find lotions or creams for both chemical and mineral sunscreens. However, sprays usually only contain chemical sunscreens. I recommend lotions or creams for your first application as they give the most thorough protection when applied. Sprays can be a good option for reapplication.

All sunscreens are water resistant (never waterproof), so you’ll need to reapply if your kid is in the water. No sunscreen lasts longer than about 90 minutes if swimming or perspiring, so frequent reapplication is key for good protection. An average 8-year-old will need about an ounce of a creamy sunscreen for proper protection.

I hope this information will help you confidently make sunscreen choices for your family. No matter which options you choose, sunscreen is an essential part of keeping kids safe.