As the summer season kicks into high gear across Canada, experts are hoping to set the record straight on sunscreen.
Between cottage trips, outdoor parks and sun-soaked days at the beach, they say it’s crucial to separate fact from fiction when it comes to protecting our skin from harmful ultraviolet rays (UV rays).
Exposure to the sun’s UV rays not only can cause moderate irritation but also raises your risk of developing melanoma – skin cancer – as well as eye and lip cancer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society.
Both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays can cause damage to your skin, explained Jill Dunn, a Toronto-based beauty expert.
“UVA rays, which we know go deeper into the skin and can cause DNA damage, (are) known as the aging rays,” she said. “UVB rays are known oftentimes as the ones that are responsible for burning the skin.”
But there are ways to help minimize the damage of UVA and UVB rays. Here’s what you should look for.
Health Matters: Tips for sun safety
What to know about sunscreen labels
When you head to the sunscreen aisle at the store, Dunn acknowledges it may be a bit overwhelming with all the choices, from lotions, sprays, creams and sticks.
Ultimately, the texture is a personal preference, but she says two factors you should consider when buying sunscreen include SPF and broad-spectrum.
Broad-spectrum sunscreens offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays, Health Canada notes on its website.
“UVB is the main cause of sunburn and both UVA and UVB can increase your risk of skin cancer,” the government website says.
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The Canadian Dermatology Association recommends a minimum broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher.
“The SPF is a relative measure of how long it will take for unprotected skin to burn in the sun compared to how long it will take if the recommended amount of sunscreen is used,” the government of Canada says. “However, using a sunscreen with SPF 30 does not mean you can spend 30 times longer in the sun.”
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93 per cent of UVB rays, and sunscreen with SPF 30 blocks 97 per cent of UVB rays.
The Canadian Dermatology Association advocates for a higher SPF in sunscreen if possible, according to Dr. Sunil Kalia, associate professor at the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia.
“The problem is that most people don’t put enough of a thick layer on for that SPF to do as much as it claims. So that’s why we advocate for higher amounts,” he said.
How much sunscreen be applied and how often?
In terms of sunscreen application, Kalia said people should apply “a teaspoon” amount on the face.
When it comes to applying sunscreen to the rest of the body, how much lotion is needed depends on the amount of clothing one is wearing.
Clothing, especially polyester material, offers excellent sun protection. Therefore, he advised to apply sunscreen only to parts of the body directly exposed to sunlight.
He also said sunscreen (if adequately applied) works right away, so you do not always have to worry about applying it 15-30 minutes before heading out the door.
Three ways to bust sunscreen myths
“The truth is actually sunscreen works right when you apply it,” he said. “The reason why a bottle says (to put it on ahead of exposure) is because that was part of the labelling requirement.”
Some sunscreen bottles may also recommend applying once every two hours, but Kalia also said that is more of a misconception as it depends on your activity level.
“The good thing is with the newer formulations the sunscreens usually are longer lasting,” he said. “So if somebody puts sunscreen on and they’re not exercising, then that would be good enough for many hours and for the whole day, actually.”
The general rule, he said, is to reapply sunscreen when swimming or experiencing heavy sweating.
Sun protection on cloudy days
UV rays can penetrate through clouds, fog and haze, explained Kalia.
“Especially during the summer months, the UV intensity can be very strong when it’s a cloudy day and the UVA rays definitely filter through,” he said. “Therefore, it’s still important to go to that sun protection steps.”
And the rays don’t just penetrate through clouds.
It is crucial to wear sun protection even in scenarios such as sitting near a window in your house or while driving, Dunn warned.
“UVA rays get through car windows. And I know it’s the summer road trip season for a lot of people. So that’s definitely something to keep in mind and just have on hand,” she said.
Can you rely on SPF in beauty products?
Many beauty products these days from moisturizers to foundations to lip glosses, advertise that they contain SPF.
However, when it comes to SPF in beauty products, Dunn expressed that while it is nice to have, she doesn’t rely on it for ultimate protection.
Also, applying an SPF 50 sunscreen and using a foundation with SPF 30 doesn’t cumulatively add up to an SPF 80, she warned.
“It really is an important thing to know that it’s not it’s not enough protection,” she said, adding that in Canada, SPFs are classified as drugs, whereas makeup is not, meaning it may not be thoroughly tested.
Here’s the difference between sunscreen and moisturizers with SPF
Mineral vs chemical sunscreens
There are two main types of sunscreens — chemical and mineral, and both shield your skin from the sun in different ways, explained Sherry Torkos, an Ontario-based pharmacist and health author.
Chemical sunscreen contains ingredients like octinoxate and oxybenzone, and when applied to the skin, these compounds absorb UV rays and convert them into heat, which is then released from the skin, she explained.
Although there have been small studies showing links to cancer-causing agents in chemical sunscreens, the Canadian Dermatology Association still recommends that people use sunscreens to protect themselves from exposure to UV rays, which cause most skin cancers.
Mineral sunscreen, she says, does not get absorbed into the skin and is made from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These minerals create a physical barrier on the skin’s surface that reflects and scatters UV rays, providing protection.
Natural summer skin health
“When you say zinc sunscreens, I think some people think about the lifeguard with the white nose,” Torkos said. “That was the case maybe 20 years ago when the mineral sunscreens went on very white. But the companies that have the mineral-based sunscreens, they’ve really evolved over the last ten years to be able to come up with formulations that go on either sheer or tinted.”
One of the main reasons someone may choose mineral sunscreen, she said, is because the product is generally considered to be less likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reactions, making it a suitable option for those with sensitive skin.
Mineral sunscreen may also be a better choice for people wanting a more natural product and one that is less harmful to the environment, she added.
Does age play into sun protection?
There are a few factors that might make someone more prone to sunburn, according to Kalia.
“Youth are more susceptible to burns with their skin … we don’t really know why … but probably their skin is thinner. They also do have more damage from sunburn. So that’s why we really do advocate for youth to protect themselves from sunburns because they really do predispose people to melanoma, skin cancer later on in life.”
Once someone is past the age of around 65 their skin may be more susceptible to burns, he said, but older individuals on average usually have less sun exposure compared to young people.
“So we don’t see that being as problematic at that age,” he added.
Additionally, as we age, we start to notice sun damage on our skin, such as the appearance of dark spots, Dunn said.
“You think maybe you’re getting a little bit more sun damage, but I think it’s our skin showing age spots and the damage that the sun has done over all of those years,” she said.
Storing and expiry
According to Health Canada, you should avoid storing your sunscreen in direct sunlight or in places that can reach high temperatures, like in a hot car.
“Exposure to extreme heat can cause sunscreens to be less effective,” the agency said on its website.
Health Canada also notes all sunscreens have an expiry date and warns using it after that date may make the sunscreen less effective.