My second daughter enjoying Bethany Beach in last summer’s sun.

With the strange spring we’ve been having, we’ve already had quite a few hot days, and today is supposed to be another one.  Our conversations about sunscreen have become more commonplace, as have my concerns.

Let’s start with this: none of my kids has ever suffered a sunburn because we’re attentive about their time in the sun and the skin protection criteria under which they may spend that time. Compare that with how many sunburns we ourselves experienced as kids. And there’s also this: my grandmother died of colon cancer that had metastasized from skin cancer. This is not a topic I’m treating casually.

We apply and reapply suncscreen. We try not to spend too much time in direct sunlight during peak hours. We dress in layers and bring our beach umbrella and rest in the shade of our maple tree.  The idea of my kids burning in the sun and raising their risks of skin cancer in the future completely unnerves me. But here’s the flip side: applying all that who-knows-what to their skin really unnerves me, too. And I struggle with the appropriate balance.

I’ve been decreasing our dependence on chemicals for years. I’m one of those moms who worries about phthalates and parabens. I avoid reheating food in plastic containers. I use coconut oil as lip balm and pay easily double the price of conventional kiddie shampoos for the all-natural-ingredients products because when I think about what touches my kids’ skin and what I rub in their scalps and what I might accidentally drip into their eyes, I like all the words to be pronounceable and recognizable. We buy milk with an agenda of avoiding bovine hormones and antibiotics and clean with vinegar and baking soda and then summer comes, and what is in those sunscreens?

It makes me crazy that I spend most of the year avoiding slathering anything on my kids and summer comes and it’s all more goop, every hour. And what makes me even more crazy is that they’re so conditioned to it that as soon as the sun shines brightly they start asking for sunscreen. It was 65 degrees on Sunday and we were in our tree-shaded backyard and my four-year-old decided to apply her own sunscreen when I wouldn’t apply it for her. She really believed that she needed it.

I buy my sunscreen based on the recommendations of the Environmental Working Group, which analyzes the safety of each product’s ingredients (here’s the 2011 sunscreen guide). I avoid all the usual scary chemicals as well as retinyl palmitate, a form of Vitamin A that’s really common in sunscreen and other skin products because it’s an antioxidant, but in the presence of sun it is thought to accelerate skin cancers. I conscientiously do my best but I just can’t resolve this conflict between not liking to put anything on my kids at all and this summer need to protect their skin by covering them in product. Because let’s face it: we’re not staying inside.

The FDA is rolling out new requirements for the labeling of sunscreen next month. These new rules should make it more clear just how much protection you’re offering your kids and how often you need to reapply your product, but they can’t do anything to make the ingredients less unpleasant.

Our sunny season is still just beginning, so tell me: what’s your summer sunscreen plan?

When Robin isn’t here you can find her writing on her own blog, The Not-Ever-Still Life, or on FacebookGoogle+, and Twitter.