How serious do you need to be about sun safety? We asked a dermatologist all the FAQs

Sun safety is sexy and here's why.

Sun safety is sexy and here's why

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With summer weather upon us, the risk of sunburn and skin damage is at its highest. If you're one of those people who ends up red and peeling right out of the gate, it's probably time you took your summer skin protection more seriously. But whether you tend to sunburn or not, there's a lot to know about the sun and your skin.

According to Statistics Canada, only 30 per cent - 40 per cent of adults use sunscreen or seek shade. 37 per cent of adults reported at least one sunburn per year. While Canadians increased their sun exposure from 1996 to 2006, there was no increase in their use of sun protection. In 2017, there were an estimated 7,300 new cases of melanoma in Canada, and melanoma is the 8th-most common form of cancer in Canada. It was estimated that melanoma caused 1,240 Canadian deaths in 2017. 

In an effort to arm you with the answers to some important (SP)FAQs, we reached out to Dr. Anatoli Freiman, Chair of the Canadian Dermatology Association Sun Protection Program and Medical Director of the Toronto Dermatology Centre, to fill us in on everything we need to know and think about before stepping into the sunlight.

(SP)FAQs with Dr. Anatoli Freiman

What is UV?

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sun exposure is the primary environmental cause of premature skin aging and most skin cancers. There are three wavelengths of UV radiation, UVA, UVB and UVC, with both UVA and UVB being specifically carcinogenic (having the ability to cause cancer). To find the UV levels in your area, the Government Of Canada posts a Daily UV Index Forecast for the entire country.

What is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, a system which indicates how effective a sunscreen is against UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the higher the protection. However, SPF does not indicate if the sunscreen protects against UVA or if it's broad-spectrum (protecting against both UVA and UVB). A broad-spectrum sunscreen is most optimally recommended.

How does sunscreen work?

Sunscreens either absorb or reflect UV radiation. Sunscreens are generally divided into two types: organic/chemical preparations, which absorb UV radiation, or inorganic/physical preparations (such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) which physically block UV radiation. Many sunscreens combine both chemical and physical ingredients, and come in a variety of forms (lotions, gels, sprays, etc.). 

The Canadian Dermatology Association's Sun Protection Program scientifically evaluates sunscreens through independent lab testing, and encourages Canadians to look for the CDA logo on sunscreen when purchasing.

What SPF is right for me?

Dermatologists typically recommend a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, blocking at least 97 per cent of UVB.

Should babies and children use different sunscreen?

Sunscreen is suggested for babies over the age of 6 months, while other sun-protective measures (clothing, shade) should be employed in younger infants.

How much sunscreen should I use?

30ml (approximately 1 oz or a shot glass-full) of sunscreen is needed to adequately cover the body, while a teaspoon is needed for the face. Apply generously and evenly.

How long should I wait before going outside?

Wait 15 minutes after applying, for the sunscreen to set, before going outside.

When should I reapply it?

Sunscreen should be reapplied in sufficient quantities at least every two hours, or more frequently after swimming or sweating.

What about water resistant sunscreens?

Water resistant sunscreens maintain SPF protection levels after 40 - 80 minutes of water immersion.

How long does a bottle of sunscreen last?

If you're applying sunscreen regularly as recommended, you should be finishing it well before its expiration date. Though it may have some level of protection past that date, it's best to throw it out and get a new one.

Should I use a different sunscreen for my face?

Typically not, however, some people may be more sensitive to ingredients, fragrances and types (like liquids, gels and sprays) than others.

What else should I be doing to protect my skin?

Sunscreen use is just one of the important measures of overall sun safety. Other main strategies include staying out of the sun during peak hours (10 a.m. - 3 p.m.), seeking shade and wearing sun-protective hats, clothing and sunglasses.

Do I have to use sunscreen in cloudy or cold weather, year-round?

YES. Even though you may not see the sun, its rays still shine through. This is doubly true when skiing or swimming, as the reflection of the sun off of the snow and water can amplify its effect.

Is a little summer tan okay?

Though individuals handle sun exposure differently, we get enough incidental sun exposure, so a "little" or "base" tan is not encouraged. 

How should I treat a burn?

Sunburn treatment depends on its severity, but for a typical mild-to-moderate burn, stay indoors or cover the area and remedy the pain with cool compresses or cooling gels, such as aloe vera. 

What are signs or symptoms of a serious burn I should seek treatment for?

Though everyone's sunburns are varied, if a burn is outside your norm, being particularly painful, forming blisters or causing skin breakdown, seek medical attention.

What are signs that I should get checked for melanoma?

Indicators that you should get checked for possible melanoma are covered by the acronym "ABCDE". If you notice you have moles that are Asymmetric (halves are not the same), have a jagged Border, have varying Colour, have a Diameter greater than 6 mm (about the size of a pencil eraser) or is Evolving (changing shape, colour or size), visit your dermatologist. Though melanoma is a common form of cancer, it is also one of the most preventable.


For more information, the Canadian Dermatology Association site has further sun safety tips, as well as a list of approved sunscreens and skin care products.

Do you have sunny skin care tips or more FAQs? Rub them on our backs in the comments below.

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