Sunscreens and Bug Sprays

After the April showers, summer brings not just flowers, but also plenty of exposure to UV radiation and mosquitoes. While most parents will visit the sunblock and bug spray aisles to prepare for summer camp, sports, and vacations, the labels are nothing short of confusing (kind of like the cold medication aisle, but that’s a topic/post for another day).  In this post I’ll decode the ingredients and SPF numbers to help you choose the best sunblock and bug spray for your family.  


Here’s the spoiler: I stock up on Kiss My Face Kids Defense Mineral SPF30 when it goes on sale ($4.95 on amazon at the time). See this post for more Dr. Yeh approved sunblocks.  I use Repel as our bug spray that I bought from Target as our main bug repellent, but I would have been happy with the Cutter brand too. 

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Then actual meaning of the SPF number is confusing and misleading. It has something to do with quantifying time it takes to get burnt, but who wants to find out how long it takes to get burnt in the first place right? Plus, it applies to UVB rays only, not UVA. Focus instead on these tidbits: No matter how high the SPF, it is still recommended to reapply every 2 hours. SPF30 blocks out 97% UVB. SPF50 might make you feel better if you have fair skin, and anything more than SPF50 just costs more and contains more chemicals…

Which brings us to the ingredients.

Screen Shot 2017-05-30 at 10.51.27 AMThe table here is a guide from the FDA, found on the website. The only ingredients I trust are the two physical compounds, which block out the UVA and UVB rays. The sunblock I choose for my family contain both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Many foundation powders also contain titanium dioxide, so even more protection to look good at the beach when you wear make up on top of the sunblock! The chemical ingredients work by absorbing the UVB and sometimes UVA rays. However, sometimes they can get absorbed in to the body too, and who knows what happens then. It may be a stretch to conclude that they can disrupt hormonal pathways but there is still much to be known. For now, simplicity rules the day for what I recommend to patients, the two well protecting physical agents.

Other things to consider when choosing a sunscreen are form and expiration date. It seems that while we can ignore the expiration date up to a point for Epi-Pens (ok to keep as backup, but always have a non-expired one on hand) and food (that yogurt expired last month is probably still ok right?), dermatologists and the CDC recommend paying close attention to the dates on sunscreen. Also, sprays are not recommended because they can be inhaled. If you want to use them still, I recommend spraying into your hand then applying it on your child. Sticks are good for applying around the eyes to avoid getting lotion in the eyes (but again, I like simplicity, so I just use the sunscreen lotion). Most sunscreens will say not for use for babies under 6 months old. However, if taking your 4-6 month to a day at the beach, I think that the two physical barrier agents should be safe to apply (especially given that zinc oxide is a common diaper cream ingredient) and lots of precaution such as shade, long sleeves, hat, and avoiding sun exposure from 10am-4pm. I would recommend keeping a baby under than 4 months old out of the sun within reason since their skin is so sensitive, so a brief walk 15-20 minutes in the shade, under stroller canopy, is probably fine. Again reapply every 2 hours, even on cloudy days when the UV rays are actually magnified.

Bug repellent:

As with anything, less (chemical) is more and use common sense. Picaridin and lemon of eucalyptus oil ingredients offer non-DEET alternatives for kids, and are comparable to DEET in terms of efficacy. If, however, you are visiting a heavily mosquito infested area (like when I visit Taiwan, or go camping, or just being in my yard in the evening), then use a DEET-containing insect repellent. Being protected again mosquito-borne illness like Zika or West Nile Virus >>>>> any potential (really minimal) risk from DEET. The bug sprays can be messy, so I usually spray onto a wipe and then wipe onto exposed skin. Do tick checks daily on your kids, because if a tick has been on them less than 24 hours, it is highly unlikely for the tick to have transmitted lyme disease. Also, if camping, or walking through a woody area, you can also apply permethrin 0.5% (such as Sawyer Insect Repellent, Coleman Insect Treatment, Ben’s Insect Treatment) to clothing, back packs, and sleeping bags to ward off ticks and mosquitoes (do not spray on skin). Just for reference on quantity, I used a whole can when I spray my bedding and clothes for a trip to Haiti. The American Academy of Pediatrics has a useful table and more information on insect avoidance. I do not recommend a combined sunscreen and bug spray product, because the sunscreen needs to be re-applied every 2 hours, and you may not need both at the same time in many situations.

Hope you have a wonderful sunburn free with minimal bug bites kind of summer!

Disclaimer: My goals are to supplement information I offer to patients and their families, to augment the meager 10-20 minute office visits. However, all the information, graphics, and photos on this website ( or on my Twitter feed @Betamomma are not meant to diagnose or treat any illness or is not meant to be taken as medical advice. Please discuss with your own doctors or your child’s own doctors to formulate a diet or treatment plan specific to you or your child.

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