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Spray sunscreen: is it safe for kids?

July 28, 2014

Consumer Reports has recently updated their recommendations on sunscreen use in kids, saying that spray sunscreens should not be used in children.

But before you throw out your $20 spray bottle, hang on just a second.

The evidence for these recommendations is unclear, and the relevant physician groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), along with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not come to the same conclusions as Consumer Reports.

What’s the concern?

In 2011, the FDA announced changes in the way sunscreens would be labeled and marketed. The FDA also declared their intention to examine newer dosage forms of sunscreens (such as sprays) to assess their safety and effectiveness. This examination would also consider whether spray sunscreens needed additional warnings or directions to be used safely.

The FDA is still in the process of conducting the review, and has not released any new information regarding the safety or effectiveness of spray sunscreens, whether in kids or adults.

Consumer Reports’ recent statement makes it seem as if there is new information available that points to the harmfulness of spray sunscreens, but that is not the case. The concern back in 2011 when the FDA announced its review of these newer dosage forms was that we didn’t know whether or not spraying these particles instead of rubbing them on in lotion form changed how it affected our bodies.

Is it harmful for a child if they breathe in the aerosolized sunscreen particles (as children are much more likely to breathe it in than adults)? Can it affect breathing, asthma? We don’t have those answers yet.

Should I use spray sunscreen on my kids or not?

There simply isn’t a clear answer to that question right now. There is not clear evidence that these are unsafe to use in children, but there are concerns. The American Academy of Dermatology says that if you’re using spray sunscreens, be sure to avoid spraying near the face and mouth. If you’re spraying children, be aware of the wind direction to avoid inhalation. When placing sunscreen on the face, spray into your hand and apply the sunscreen with your hands. Don’t directly spray your face.

Another concern to keep in mind is the flammability of spray sunscreens. The FDA reports five cases of people wearing sunscreen spray who were in close proximity to an open flame and received serious burns. Although, the specific products involved were removed from the market, many sunscreen sprays contain flammable products. Never spray an aerosolized product near an open flame and consider avoiding proximity to open flames if you are wearing sunscreen spray.

Don’t forget, though, that although we aren’t sure exactly what risks spray sunscreens potentially bring, we know very well the risks of sun exposure. There are more than 3.5 million skin cancers diagnosed annually, and many of those are a result of sun exposure. And for some kids, rubbing down their whole bodies with sunscreen lotion becomes an epic wrestling match that parents can never win.

If it came down to a choice between using no sun protection and using a spray sunscreen, the choice is clear: use the spray. However, given the current concerns with spray sunscreen, it might not be a bad idea to give preference to the lotion until we have more concrete evidence to make recommendations. And of course, don’t forget that hats and sunglasses, lightweight protective clothing, umbrellas and avoiding sunlight at peak hours can all help minimize sun exposure as well.