—Photo by JellyBean Pictures

Sunscreen is a no-brainer for babies in 2012. Unfortunately, understanding the differences among brands is less clear-cut. To help, the FDA is now mandating that sunscreen manufacturers adhere to more stringent labeling requirements and more consistent claims about what a sunscreen can do, and what type of UV protection it offers. We’ve asked Dr. JJ Levenstein, renowned pediatrician and co-founder of MD Moms, to help us understand the new labels we’ll be seeing on shelves this summer.

Broad Spectrum. It’s important to remember that SPF only measures protection from UVB rays; choose a “broad spectrum” sunscreen that also reduces the risk of skin cancer and premature aging through UVA protection. New FDA mandate: only sunscreens that have been tested and pass muster for both UVA and UVB protection will be allowed to be labeled Broad Spectrum.

Water Resistant. Eventually all sunscreen washes off, so new packaging will no longer bear the terms “waterproof” or “sweatproof.” Instead, allowances will be made for claims of water resistance up to 40 or 80 minutes.

Minimum SPF. It’s more important to use sunscreen properly than to use a very high SPF. SPF 50 only blocks out about one percent more UVB rays than SPF 30 (which blocks 97 percent). Very high SPF sunscreens  (like SPF 100) only offer a negligible amount of additional coverage, but tend to lead to a false sense of security—and may have a higher risk of irritation.

Label sleuthing aside, here are Levenstein’s top tips for using sunscreen with babies in 2012.

Ideally, babies should not be exposed to direct sunlight during their first several months of life. If avoiding direct sun exposure is impossible, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) currently recommends protecting a baby’s skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen that offers an SPF of at least 15 (ideally 30).

Get a Vitamin D boost. Vitamin D production in the skin (essential for bone health) is likely diminished if you avoid the sun entirely or routinely protect your baby with sunscreen. If your baby is exclusively breastfed, she should take 400 international units (IU) of Vitamin D supplement daily by mouth; formula-fed babies get adequate amounts of Vitamin D.

Choose a physical sunscreen. A physical sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide coats the skin, deflects UV rays, and protects almost immediately after application. By contrast, chemical sunscreens delay protection against UV rays, and may increase risk of skin irritation.

Skip the irritants. Look for sun care products without oxybenzone, phthalates, lanolin, mineral oil, petroleum, or waxes.

Be wary of Vitamin A. The EWG and outside toxicologists are currently disputing the potential cancer-causing effects of Vitamin A in sunscreen, so for now it’s probably best to  try to eliminate Vitamin A derivatives (retinol and retinyl palmitate) in your sun products until more studies are published.

Consider SPF clothing. Dress your child in clothes that offer UV protection, or wash tightly woven cotton clothing in a UPF rinse, which can raise the SPF value of clothing from 5 (the SPF value of an average T-shirt) to 30.