It’s that time of year again — splendid summertime, when parents all across the northern hemisphere are grappling with the important question: Which form of sun protection is best for my child? Spray sunscreens have become a popular alternative for busy moms and dads who love how their mess-free, clear formulas can be applied on the go and are ideal for toddlers who can’t sit still through lengthy lotion applications.
Sadly, many shortcuts have shortcomings, and spray sunscreens are no exception, according to experts. Aerosol sunscreens are thinner and can leave spots on your skin that you may miss vulnerable to sun damage, says Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst and author of the sunscreens guide at the Environmental Working Group. “The aerosols that are alcohol-based are transparent, light, and the alcohol evaporates quickly,” Lunder says.
To be clear, Lunder says there are several types of sprays on the market, including those that are alcohol-based and susceptible to evaporation and those that are thinner formula, have a pump spray and have to be rubbed into the skin in order to ensure they are covering enough ground. As a rule, though, all spray sunscreens are thinner than lotion, which could leave children with less protection from harmful UVA and UVB rays.
“Incomplete protection frequently occurs, and the spray aspect can lead to inhalation of the sunscreen, which is dangerous for the lungs,” says Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Overall, lotion sunscreen is preferable to spray sunscreen for children.”
The most common chemicals found in spray sunscreens that are unsafe are oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, Fisher says, with oxybenzone proving the bigger culprit because it can be harmful for children as a potent allergen and a chemical that can disrupt hormone regulation.
It’s important to note that, when it comes to all sunscreens and the chemicals they contain, the jury isn’t out just yet on whether the bad outweighs the good.
“The FDA has several safety and effectiveness regulations in place that govern sunscreen, including safety data on its ingredients,” says Dr. Delphine Lee, dermatologist and director of the Carolyn Dirks and Brett Dougherty Laboratory for Cancer Research and Department of Translational Immunology at John Wayne Cancer Institute. “Chemical sunscreens contain active ingredients that absorb the sun’s UV rays (e.g., oxybenzone, avobenzone), while physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreens) contain active ingredients that block the sun’s rays (e.g., zinc oxide, titanium dioxide). Claims that sunscreen ingredients are toxic or a hazard to human health have not been proven.”
Bottom line: Some form of sun protection is better than nothing at all, but when given the choice between sunscreen lotion and spray, all experts agree lotion is best — even if your children are at the age where they can hold their breath while you apply spray SPF.
“Though sprays are convenient, we do not know the effects of accidental inhalation of sunscreens, particularly in people with underlying respiratory conditions,” Lee says. “Therefore, parents should seek advice from their board certified dermatologist in combination with their pediatrician. When used properly, sunscreens are a safe and effective way to protect against the damaging effects of exposure to ultraviolet radiation.”
Spraying on sunscreen does not likely result in the same amount of sunscreen applied to the skin compared to lotions or sunscreen sticks, Lee says, but paying attention to how you’re using all forms of sunscreen is just as crucial. “Some sunscreen users may not be applying enough regardless of the form they are using,” Lee says. “For example, many fail to cover all their exposed skin or reapply often enough. Therefore, people should follow a comprehensive sun protection plan that includes seeking shade and wearing protective clothing.”
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