Q: I've been shopping for swimwear for my toddler son and realized all of it has a UV shield in it. I understand the purpose but what is it exactly? I suspect it's a chemical that transfers to the skin (yikes!), but I can't find much info about it. —Christina Peck
Not that I’m suggesting this for your child, but the bulky woolen swimwear people wore in the 1920s was quite practical—a thick, tightly woven fabric naturally blocks ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Today, as you note, we are being offered UV Protection Factor (UPF) fabrics. Some of these (but not all) are coated or embedded with sunscreens. Some use synthetic chemicals such as benzophenone, which is classified as toxic by the Environmental Working Group. Others are “embedded” with the natural minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Not so natural, though, is the reduction of these minerals to controversial nanoparticles, which you probably really don't want floating around in your body.
While it’s unlikely that these sunscreens would readily rub off on your child’s skin, it is true that as fabric ages, coatings can wear off. At minimum, this is not good for watery ecosystems or the children playing in them. And fabrics with any sort of treatment can irritate sensitive skin.
One easy solution: Choose “chemical-free” toddler swimwear. Below are several sources for infant, toddler, and children’s swimwear made from fabrics whose 50+ UPF scores derive from weave and heft rather than coatings or treatments. (The “chemical-free” claims are not necessarily accurate because the fabrics sometimes contain antimicrobial or stain-resistant treatments. These are easy to avoid as companies usually boast about them, but ask the manufacturer if you’re not sure.)
In order to bear the UPF seal, fabrics have to have been tested and rated according to standards set by the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists, based on Australia’s ARPANSA certification.
Can’t find a UPF-rated fabric in a pinch? Remember those bathers in their woolens. Cover your child up long-sleeved shirts and pants made of in dark, tightly woven fabrics, which block UV more effectively that light-colored, openweave or stretchy garments, according to the American Cancer Society.
And remember, the right sunscreen is your child’s friend. Badger, for one, makes an excellent full-spectrum (effective against UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen for babies made of non-nano zinc oxide. I use it myself; it’s gentle on my sensitive skin. Adorable Baby Clear Baby Sunscreen uses non-nano zinc and, along with Badger and others, gets top green rating from EWG for summer 2012. Check out their guide.
When possible, keep your child in the shade and recognize that skin-damaging UVA rays are potent all day long.
A diversified sun protection approach is the perfect base for a fun, healthy summer in and out of the water. Enjoy!
Mindy Pennybacker is Whole Living’s eco expert. She regularly answers readers' green-living questions. She is also editor of GreenerPenny.com and author of Do One Green Thing: Saving the Earth Through Simple, Everyday Choices.