As the weather warms up across the country, many parents begin to stock up on sunscreens and bug repellents. Happily, moms and dads have a lot of choices in what to buy, but they also need to brace for an onslaught of misinformation, distortions, and outright lies about the dangers of these products — all of which make shopping a lot more stressful.
Years ago, the banal task of visiting the local drug store was about as interesting as watching grass grow. Today, many parents agonize about the correct way to keep their children free of bug bites and sun damage. Faced with vague and often unsubstantiated claims by activist organizations and self-promoting wellness bloggers that certain products are harmful, more and more parents now pause in the drug store aisle, wondering: Will I give my kid a developmental delay, cancer, or autism if I use this brand over that brand?
Consider bug repellent. Both moms and dads no doubt have heard nebulous claims that they should avoid bug sprays that contain DEET. They are often advised to steer clear of the “big brands” in favor of companies that produce “natural” and “organic” products — preferably those produced in small batches.
Of course, what parents should know is that leading health agencies — such as the EPA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization — all recommend products containing DEET to prevent vector-borne diseases. The CDC’s Traveler’s Health website even advises Americans to use bug repellents that contain “at least 20 percent DEET” and specifically mentions easy-to-find products such as Cutter Backwoods and Off! Deep Woods, both of which contain DEET, “for protection against mosquitoes, ticks, and other bugs.”
Parents should also be aware that vector-borne diseases continue to be a problem in this country. In 2015, the CDC recorded over 2,000 cases of West Nile virus, which tragically resulted in 119 deaths. In 2014, 25,000 cases of Lyme disease were reported. And Zika continues to concern public health officials.
Yet activists continue to promote studies that have shown harm to animals exposed to DEET. While it’s true that these studies exist, it’s important to know that in these experiments, the animals are exposed to massive doses of the chemical, a much larger amount than what’s found in the products on store shelves.
Parents should ask themselves: Should I rely on these claims from activist organizations based on studies that in no way reflect the way humans use bug repellent (if your child is drinking DEET, you have larger problems on your hands), or should I trust the medical community, which overwhelmingly endorses the use of DEET to avoid diseases caused by insect bites?
Sunscreens are also subject to alarmist hyperbole. The first synthetic sunscreens were developed nearly 100 years ago and since then have vastly improved in both utility and effectiveness. Yet, activists tell parents that they should forgo synthetic sunscreen in favor of more “natural” alternatives — like raspberry seed oil, sesame oil, and Shea butter. While these “natural” sunscreens do provide some protection from the sun, synthetic sunscreens do as well, are perfectly safe, and are often much more affordable and readily available than their boutique “natural” and “organic” counterparts.
As with DEET, sunscreens are also subject to scaremongering by activists who claim studies demonstrate the chemicals they contain harm humans. Yet, again, in these studies, the animals were exposed to extremely high doses of the chemicals. As one doctor explained to the Wall Street Journal, those conclusions came from studies "where scientists had the mice bathe in the sunscreen daily and even eat it…"
Of course, scaring consumers is a very lucrative business, which is why certain large-scale companies — like actress Jessica Alba's Honest Company — use fear-based marketing to suggest their products are "safer" and "better" for children. This marketing hasn't shielded the company from criticism, though. In 2014, a wave of angry and very social media-savvy parents posted pictures of their sunburned children on various websites after using Honest Company sunscreen. Clearly the product — filled with those natural, "safer" ingredients — had failed to protect their children's skin from badly burning.
Parents deserve better information about important essential summertime products such as sunscreen and bug repellent. But moms and dads also need to take charge and check sources to ensure they are using science- and evidence-based information when it comes to their children's safety.
As parents everywhere begin enjoying the spring and early summer, they shouldn't be persuaded by activists pushing alarmist messages or promoting the "natural" narrative. Mosquitos, ticks, and the sun are natural things. But it's important to remember, they're also deadly.
Julie Gunlock is a mom of three young boys and a writer for Independent Women's Forum. She is based in Arlington, Virginia.