Browsing Tag


The Chemistry of Sunscreen: Organic vs. Non-Organic, a Marketing Misnomer

By August 12, 2015 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, I took my daughter to the opening of an outdoor portion of our local children’s museum.  As a service, the museum provided sunscreen for all who attended.  Not just any sunscreen, but natural, “chemical-free” sunscreen.  Several women near me were chatting about how nice it was that the museum provided “chemical-free” sunscreen.

The chemist in me rolled my eyes.  Why?  Because everything is made of “chemicals.”  So, it is a bit of a misnomer to call this sunscreen “chemical-free.”

The words “contains organic ingredients” also highlight the difference between language used in marketing versus the scientific community as a whole.  The word “organic” has many meanings but is often associated with living (or once-alive) organisms.  In chemistry, “organic” simply means chemical compounds associated with living species, specifically, a carbon backbone. Thus in chemistry, organic simply means “containing carbon,” while in the marketing world, “organic” often means “limited pesticides.”

Now that that misnomer has been debunked, what you need to know is that in the sunscreen world, two labels are used to describe it: “mineral” and “chemical” sunscreen. “Mineral” sunscreens typically refer to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are chemical compounds labeled “inorganic” because they do not contain carbon atoms in their overall structure.  Conversely, “chemical” sunscreens are made up of carbon-containing molecules that absorb light, and because they contain carbon, chemists refer to them as “organic.”

Below is the chemical structure for oxybenzone.  When an organic molecule has a lot of double bonds like you see below, it’s good at absorbing UV light, the same light that we are trying to block using sunscreen (absorbing in this case means the same as blocking). This is what makes oxybenzone a good sunscreen.


(Drawn using Chemdoodle,

The green sunscreen shown above is the one given to us by the children’s museum, and it contains zinc oxide (ZnO), and titanium dioxide (TiO2). These are also chemicals, just a different type of chemical.  ZnO and TiO2 are not carbon-containing molecules (“organic”), but rather inorganic UV blockers.  Many sunscreen brands refer to zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as “mineral” sunscreens.  This term evokes thoughts of gathering rocks and grinding them up and plastering the mix on your body.  But this actually is a bit of marketing language.  Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are also chemicals.  In fact, they’re chemicals not typically even found in nature, but rather created or synthesized in the lab by oxidizing zinc and titanium metal.

(Drawn using Chemdoodle,

(Drawn using Chemdoodle,

So what are the pros and cons of each type of sunscreen?

Pros and cons of oxybenzone sunscreen: Oxybenzone is a clear sunscreen, meaning that it is relatively easy to apply and does not have a white appearance. Most importantly, oxybenzone absorbs UV light and protects your skin from UV damage, which makes it a good sunscreen.  The drawbacks of the UV-absorbing organic compounds include a higher rate of allergic reactions in users and the possibility of the compound being disruptive to hormones such as estrogen. Although studies show that oxybenzone  does bind to estrogen, panic associated with this finding is unfounded.  In 2004,  a study that found that while humans absorb oxybenzone, there was not enough evidence to suggest that the absorption of oxybenzone affected hormone levels.  In my professional opinion, the benefit of oxybenzone protecting your skin from harmful UV rays outweighs the small risk that oxybenzone may be a hormone disruptor.

Pros and cons of Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide sunscreen: Zinc oxide and titanium oxide sunscreens are also both very effective at blocking UV light from your skin through a combination of scattering and absorbing the UV light. However, the biggest drawback of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is their cosmetic appearance.  Both of these compounds are white and produce an opaque appearance on the skin.  Even with advances of making ZnO and TiO2 particles very small (i.e. to make them more translucent), the opaqueness is still an issue for those who prefer invisible protection.

I personally use both types of sunscreen for myself and my children, so my recommendation?  Use sunscreen.  Any type that you can find or afford.  It would be much better to use any type of sunscreen than none at all – just make sure that your children are protected to prevent sunburns.




Burnett, M. E. and Wang, S. Q. (2011), Current sunscreen controversies: a critical review. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology & Photomedicine, 27: 58–67.

[2] Schauder, S.,  Ippen, H. (1997) Contact and photocontact sensitivity to sunscreens. Review of a 15 year experience and of the literature. Contact Dermatitis, 37, 221–232

[3] Janjua, N. R., Mogensen, B., Andersson, A., Jørgen, H. P., Henriksen, M., Skakkebæk, N.,E., & Wulf, H. C. (2004). Systemic absorption of the sunscreens benzophenone-3, octyl-methoxycinnamate, and 3-(4-methyl-benzylidene) camphor after whole-body topical application and reproductive hormone levels in humans. The Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 123(1), 57-61.



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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

Surviving Your Family Summer Vacation: Your Parental Permission Slip

By August 9, 2015 No Comments

It’s been 6 days since I’ve slept in my bed and over a week since I’ve had any time to myself uninterrupted. Not a huge deal really, but for you fellow introverts and creatures of comfort like myself, you probably understand me when I say that I’m in the “wits end” zone of wanting to willfully play dead when the kids or my fiance approach me to socialize. No more socializing! No! I need a vacation to recover from this vacation!

Here’s the thing about family time for me. I LOVE my family. And my family also drives me crazy at times as families do on vacations all together, especially on vacations in remote places because we invade each other’s space and do a lot of activities together. That applies to my family of origin and the one I’m in the process of creating.  Add on the fact that this new family of mine includes a man and two teenage boys who already have their own collective patterns and quirks and habits (read: manly behaviors), and it’s a recipe for a woman like me wanting to barricade myself in my vacation bedroom on day two with the furniture and wave a flag above it all like Jean Val Jean in the Broadway finale of Les Miserables. Do you hear the Julia sing? It is the song of cranky men! 

So let me summarize so I can get us to the point: Introvert. 3 members of the male species. 4 flights, 10 hours of flying, 10 hours of driving, remote cabin in the Wisconsin woods. Nervous about meeting my future mother-in-law for the first time and staying in her home. Surprise revival of hayfever. Ah-choo.

Survival for me in this case was pretty simple if I chose to be literal.

Step 1: Don’t die.

Step 2: Return home.

Since that was clearly not enough for the quality of life I preferred for this trip, I discovered a few sanity savers along the way. These things, like my To-Don’t List, are obvious when you think about them but something I’m going to articulate here to both remind you of them, and also to give you explicit permission to do this on summer vacation with your kids. Why? Why not, I say! So consider this your parental permission slip for:

  1. Saying no. Legitimately. Unabashedly saying no and not getting twisted over how upset anyone might get for it. Sad faces because I won’t do something? Ok. Sad faces then. That’s life, right? That might sound cruel on first read, but also consider that being miserable and going along with things is obvious to those around you, especially with kids who can smell a phony a mile a way. They notice when you’re maxed out or agitated even if you think you’re hiding it brilliantly, and oftentimes they internalize your emotions to mean something about themselves. I know I did as a child.Our youngest always gives me lots of hugs when he knows I’m getting tired or frustrated, and asks me what’s wrong – and that keeps me authentic and in the moment, checking in with my own feelings. For more on this, refer to my earlier post on the To-Don’t List. No means no, it doesn’t mean you’re being a jerk. Example: No, I don’t want to chop logs. Have fun though! Nope! I don’t like wolf spiders the size of my head! I don’t want to see it! Bad or wrong? Nope.
  2. Skipping traditions that precede you if they’re really not your thing. It’s ok to participate in what traditions you want to do, and choose to skip what you don’t. The guys went into town for a candy run at a place with the best cashew brittle I’ve ever had. They chopped down trees and built fires. They did their annual man-bonding fix-it work in loud voices while I took a page out of the family matriarch’s book.
    Our gorgeous view while fishing.

    Our gorgeous view while fishing.

    I stayed home with my future mama-in-law and enjoyed our own quiet time together. The sparkly silver lining? She is an introvert too so we had a great time connecting, reading, relaxing at will in harmony with one another. Later we all took a power boat out on the lake and had a blast, and even did some fishing. Plus, I caught a fish, apologized to it and let it go (I didn’t have the heart to kill it and eat it).  A new tradition to add to the pile! The boys were thrilled.

  3. Setting some ground rules with your partner. This is particularly important for situations with stepkids, but try to set some parameters that allow you to connect with your partners’ family in a natural way, or allow you the space to bond with your family or family of origin in these situations in a way that works for you. Reminder: you’re an individual and decide what works best for your needs, and if you don’t speak up, no one can support you. To get ahead of roadblocks, the fiance and I sat and discussed a couple of basics that we stuck closely to this week: this trip would be a complaining-free zone (ahem, teenagers), everyone would do their same chores as they do at home (us included), and we would balance our time between kid-focused activities and grandparent-focused activities. Not too scheduled, not too lax. The only thing I’d recommend is adding in some couple time too – that’s one thing we didn’t do. Next time we’ll be better prepared and go out on our own.

I’m pretty simple to please on vacation – I love my quiet time and I need a mix of activity and some reading and writing every day to stay content. I’m guessing you probably can dig around and think of exactly what would make you happy to do for a week with the family, too, regardless of where, when, and whom is involved.

What are your essential needs and how can you make them happen within your trip parameters? Often it’s easier than we think – we just tend to create self-imposed limits with thoughts of we “should do this” or we “have to do that.” That’s the anthem of any parent who is trying their best, really. But without the shoulds and have-tos, what would you do? Aim for that the best you can and cut yourself some slack along the way. After all, it IS vacation, and you deserve time to both enjoy yourself and the people around you.

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Categories: Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health

Choosing the Right Water Flotation Device for Your Child This Summer

By June 22, 2015 1 Comment

As a professional lifeguard one of the most common questions I get from parents is, “what’s a safe flotation device we can use at the beach or pool this summer?” There is a lot of confusion around this topic and most parents don’t realize that the right or wrong flotation device can mean the difference between life and death. Any person (including children) who cannot swim, is a weak swimmer, or is fearful around water should wear an appropriate flotation device.

Buying a flotation device for your child is a daunting task, you walk into a store and are presented with seemingly infinite choices which can range from blow-up inner tubes with the latest and greatest cartoon character, to water wings, noodles, and life jackets.

A number of parents opt for the ever-popular water wings, which many of us grew up wearing.  While these may appear as a good option because of their popularity, they’re really more of a toy than a safety device.  Water wings are not an approved flotation device and can easily slip off, restrict the movement of a child’s arms, unexpectedly leak air, and can actually hinder a child’s attempts to swim. Another popular product are bathing suits that have flotation built into them, but like water wings the floaties can ride up or slide out.

So the question remains, which one do you choose?

The answer comes down to one simple question that parents need to ask: is the flotation device both tested and approved by the United States Coast Guard (USCG)?  When I ask parents this I usually get a strange look.  “What does that even mean?”  When you are looking for a safety flotation device for your child, you need to look for the USCG stamp of approval (see pink image below).

Photo Courtesy: WHO World report on child injury prevention

Photo Courtesy: WHO World report on child injury prevention

Yes, that usually means I recommend life jackets – and no, they are not just for boating.

Before moving forward, it is important to mention that regardless of the device you choose, it should never be a substitute for constant supervision of your child around any type of water.

When making their selection, parents need to determine the intended purpose of the device; if it is solely for fun and recreation in a controlled environment with constant supervision, then the toy devices mentioned above may be acceptable to use as toys. However, if the purpose is to add an additional layer of safety to ensure that a child remains safer in the water, look for that USCG stamp that assures it is a safety enhancement. When properly selected and used, life jackets will provide a secure tight fit, good buoyant flotation which supports the user, and not greatly reduce arm movement.

When shopping for these types of devices, parents need to be cognizant of a few factors:

USCG -approved devices have a designated weight range assigned to them. Parents should choose one that fits their child’s current weight. This is important to ensure a secure fit and the proper amount of flotation.

USCG Approval Label on Flotation Device

USCG Approval Label on Flotation Device

There are five types of USCG approved flotation devices. Each type has different advantages and disadvantages which you can read about here. Parents should choose a device based on the planned activity and the design of the device being used. Types 1-3, and some type 5 are vest-style devices and can be suitable for children depending on their weight class, but type four devices are not suitable for weak swimmers or children, as they are designed as throwable devices, like life preserver rings.

Make sure the device being used is in good working order. Ensure that the device is not missing any buckles, discolored, or ripped/torn anywhere.

Parents often ask if life jackets restrict the child’s ability to learn to swim or inhibits a child’s “natural swimming instincts.” The answer to that question depends on what the true purpose of the child being in the water is. A child needs time and proper instruction to learn the coordination skills involved in swimming efficiently. So long as your child is in the water with a qualified swim instructor in a controlled environment they shouldn’t require a life jacket.  But let’s say you take the same child to the beach or to grandma and grandpa’s pool just for fun.  That environment is less controlled and much can happen in the blink of an eye.  For fun around the water an approved flotation device is the way to go, especially if you want to safeguard for if your child accidentally falls in or suddenly can’t touch the bottom.

Examples of a USCG approved device, the Puddle Jumper

Examples of a USCG approved device, the Puddle Jumper

I often hear from parents that their child will not wear a life jacket and this is a valid argument. If you can’t get your child to wear the life jacket, then obviously it can’t help them. In cases like this encourage parents to think creatively when it comes to this issue. When teaching a water exploration lesson to toddlers last week, I noticed that a parent brought in a flotation item that had a cartoon character on it and the child was excited to wear it in the water. My initial thought was that this was going to be another unapproved toy. To my surprise the USCG stamp of approval was on the device. As an example, these images of a Puddle Jumper alongside this article show something both “fun” and USCG approved – and sometimes something as simple as the right color or fun cartoon character can make a child interested in wearing the life jacket. I encourage parents to put the time and effort into finding a device that is both approved by the USCG and that your child will want to wear, because they do exist.

When looking at water safety and safer swimming in a broader context, having a proper flotation device is only one step in ensuring a safe water experience. No matter where you choose to swim, nothing is more effective than having your eyes on your child at all times. Even if you are swimming at a location where lifeguards are present, keeping constant watch over your child is best way to keep them safe. Last year I was lifeguarding for a pool party and a parent came up to me at the end of the party. He said that he always felt like his kids were in good hands and he didn’t need to always keep an eye on them. Though I appreciated the confidence in our skills, I explained to him that lifeguards are responsible for watching everyone and we are human so errors can happen. Always watching your children in any situation is the best solution. If lifeguards are not present, a designated “water watcher” should be used. This person’s job is to keep an eye on everyone in the water and make sure everyone stays safe.

The National Drowning Prevention Alliance released a position paper in 2009 on the concept of layers of protection. Do not just rely on one safety step, such as flotation devices or supervision alone, the more safety steps taken will limit the risk of a tragedy. Other important factors include choosing a safe location to swim, teaching children and adults swimming and water safety, knowing what to do in an emergency, and preventing unapproved access to the water. Every safety step counts for a safer summer of swimming!

Update 7.13.16 | Thanks to reader Ashley who pointed out that puddle jumpers are not approved personal flotation devices for use by children in Canada. Transport Canada advises when parents are choosing a water flotation device for their children they should look at the label to ensure it has been approved by Transport Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard or Fisheries and Oceans Canada.


Alga, A. & Collins, M. (2014) Best life jackets for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Lucie’s List, Retrieved from:

American Red Cross (n.d.) Home pool safety: Maintaining a safe environment around your home swimming pool. Retrieved from:

Balint, V. L. (2014). Do water wings prevent drowning? Raising Arizona Kids. Retrieved from:

Boyse, K. (2010). Water and pool safety. University of Michigan Health System. Retrieved from:

National Drowning Prevention Alliance (2009). Layers of protection around aquatic environments to prevent child drowning. Retrieved from:

REI (n.d.). PFDs for kids: How to choose. Retrieved from:

United States Coast Guard (2014). PFD selection, use, wear and care. Retrieved from:


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Categories: Accidents, Injuries, + Abuse, Ages + Stages, School-Aged Children, Toddlers + Preschoolers