In addition to sandcastle architect, boogie board fetcher, and beach blanket de-sander, grown-ups who accompany young children on summer's surfside pleasures know this to be a sacred trust: You are Slatherer-in-Chief, responsible for seeing to it that those sun-protective potions are applied early and often, keeping young skin an ouch-free zone and staving off future damage.
But which products are best? Drugstore shelves are a daunting array of choices. And if you think food labels are tough to read, sun-protection products have ingredients you can barely pronounce, let alone comprehend.
There is, however, help.
They have compiled lists of what they consider to be the best scoring sunscreens for children, as well as those they consider the worst.
The group, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to healthier lives and protecting the environment, also rated brands of moisturizers that contain sun protection, as well as sunscreens marketed for adults. And for folks who prefer to figure it out on their own, the group has come up with guidance on what ingredients to look for and some to steer clear of.
And be assured, it matters. Nationally, the skin cancer rates in adults have tripled since the 1970s. The rates continue to rise.
Marissa Perman, a pediatric dermatologist with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said children from birth through 18 who get even one serious sunburn are twice as likely to develop melanoma later in life as those who don't.
"That's a very sobering effect," Perman said.
And although children are especially sensitive to sun damage, adults also need to take precautions. The sun's UVB rays, which are thought of as the burning rays, and UVA rays, which are associated with tanning, both damage skin and can lead to cancer.
"No one is safe from the sun's damaging UV rays, and patients of all skin types should use sunscreen and sun protective measures," Perman said.
The Environmental Working Group recommends sun-protection products with ingredients that pose little or lower health concerns and provide lasting and broad-spectrum protection against both UVB and UVA rays. SPF – sun protection factor – only refers to protection from UVB.
If you happen to be visiting Europe this summer, think about picking up one the brands there. The Environmental Working Group says European brands contain ingredients with better UVA protection than most American brands.
The group favors mineral-based sunscreens with active ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and discourages the use of products that contain oxybenzone, which it calls a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, which the group says can harm skin and potentially increase cancer risk.
The Environmental Working Group also advises against spray products – there's an inhalation risk and it's harder to be sure of reliable coverage.
As for SPF, the group calls for at least factor 15 but not higher than 50. Higher SPF can be misleading and lull the user into a false sense of security, it says.
Sunscreen needs to be applied 15 to 20 minutes before going outdoors. The Environmental Working Group recommends two coats.
"You really need a thick and even coating on the skin," said Environmental Working Group senior analyst Sonya Lunder.
Perman agreed that most people don't put on enough sunscreen. Plus it needs to be reapplied at least every two hours, and every 40 to 80 minutes if you are going in the water. Water-resistant or "sport" formulas are good, but you still need to re-apply.
The Environmental Working Group cautions that sunscreens, though necessary, should be your last resort rather than the first line of defense.
Infants 6 months old or younger should be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Cover them in loose-fitting, tightly woven clothing and a sun hat. Find shade or make your own, using an umbrella, stroller canopy, or hood. Especially avoid the strong midday sun. Consult your pediatrician before using sunscreen on a baby that young because of possible adverse effects from the ingredients.
For older children and adults, clothing and hats are the best protection against the sun. Sunglasses are important protection for the eyes from UV radiation that can lead to cataracts. Shade is your friend. The early morning and late afternoon hours are much safer than 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., sun prime time.
So this summer, make your beach bag a well-stocked arsenal. And while you're slathering up the kids, don't forget about yourself. There's nothing better than a good example.
Adorable Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
All Good Kid's Sunscreen, SPF 30
All Terrain KidSport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Lotion Sunscreen, SPF 50
Babytime! by Episencial Sunny Sunscreen, SPF 35
Badger Baby Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30
Bare Republic Baby Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen Baby, SPF 30+
BurnOut KIDS Sunscreen, SPF 35
California Baby Super Sensitive Sunscreen, SPF 30+
Caribbean Sol Sol Kid Kare, SPF 30
Goddess Garden Organics Baby Natural Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
Kiss My Face Organics Kids Sunscreen, SPF 30
Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Sunscreen, SPF 50
Sunology Natural Sunscreen Kids, SPF 50
Sunumbra Sunkids Natural Sunscreen, SPF 40
ThinkSport Kids Sunscreen, SPF 50+
Tom's of Maine Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
TruKid Sunny Days Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30