Calgary

Stripes from spray sunscreen? The doctor's tips for sunny days

As the warm, sunny weather sets in, Dr. Raj Bhardwaj is encouraging people to better protect against sun damage with these tips.

For the best protection, use broad spectrum creams or gels — and cover up

Spray-on sunscreen isn't an ideal choice because it lands inconsistently on your skin, leaving sections open to ultraviolet rays. (Darron Cummings/The Associated Press)

Spray-on sunscreen and so-called base tans aren't the greatest way to avoid a sun damage to your skin, a Calgary doctor is warning.

Most people accept that sunscreen is important but they need to do more to keep their skin healthy, Dr. Raj Bhardwaj says.

As May is Melanoma Awareness Month in Canada, the doctor is trying to dispel myths and confusion so people can enjoy the current stretch of sunny, warm weather. Sunshine and temperatures in the mid to high 20s C are forecasted for the next few days.

"It's about preventing overall exposure, so not just preventing burns," Bhardwaj told the Calgary Eyeopener on Tuesday.

Avoid looking like a zebra by applying cream or gel sunscreen all over your body. Use a teaspoon for small body parts, like for each arm, leg and face/neck. Use two teaspoons for larger parts, like your front and your back.

Dr. Raj Bhardwaj is a Calgary family physician and CBC Radio columnist. (CBC)

Spray-on sunscreen is easy — and liked by anyone who doesn't want greasy hands. But it's not often recommended for a reason.

"You do get such inconsistent coverage, so I've seen people with this sort of weird stripy rashes," Bhardwaj said. "They've sprayed on their sunscreen and just left it."

  • Listen to Dr. Raj Bhardwaj's tips to avoid sun damage:

The A,B,C,D,E's of melanoma. Dr Raj Bhardwaj explains how these letters relate to detecting the abnormal moles that could indicate skin cancer. 8:44

If that's what's going to make you wear it, then please continue, he said, but try to rub it around so you don't miss any parts.

The reason this is all so important is that skin cancer is often preventable and, according to the provincial government, it's the most common type of cancer in Alberta.

Skin cancers, like melanoma, amount to one-third of all new cancer cases in the province, Alberta Health said late last year when announcing it was banning minors from tanning salons.

Tanning 'myth'

Some people believe getting "a base tan" means they don't need sunscreen, because they no longer see a burn or a tan. But this is "a huge myth," the doctor said.

A base tan is the equivalent as wearing a theoretical SPF 2 or 3 sunscreen, Bhardwaj said.

"Compare that to a lip balm that has an SPF of 15 or sunscreen with an SPF 30. A base tan's really not worth it," he said.

"Plus, if you get your base tan by going into a tanning salon, that's even worse for you because that has about 10 to 15 times the UV exposure of the sun."

The coverage quality of SPF 30 and 60 is relatively similar despite the prices often differing dramatically. SPF blocks out about 97 per cent of UV-B rays, the kind that burn you. SPF 60 filters out roughly 98.5 per cent, he said.

Make sure you rub in your sunscreen so you don't leave any skin unprotected. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day/The Associated Press)

For that reason, the doctor recommends using SPF 30 sunscreen. He suggests picking a broad spectrum one that filters both the UV-B rays and the UV-A ones, which age your skin and accelerate cancer.

Use lots of it and reapply every few hours or after contact with water.

'Weird dark mole'?

He also says to cover up, limit time in the sun and check your body for moles.

"Usually you're looking for a weird dark mole but if you start looking at your body right now, I bet you you can find a weird dark mole," Bhardwaj said. "So there are criteria that we can use and it's pretty simple."

Show your moles to your family physician if they don't meet these qualities:

  • A — Asymmetry. A normal mole should be oval or round.
  • B — Border should be smooth.
  • C — Colour should be consistent, not a patchwork.
  • D — Diameter should be no larger than the end of a pencil eraser.
  • E — Evolution. The mole should not change over time.

Also, get moles checked if they itch, burn, bleed or crust over, or if one looks different from a cluster of others.

"The whole thing about preventing ski cancer in general and melanoma, as well, is that if you can avoid excessive sun exposure and excessive ultra-violet light exposure, then you can lower your risk," Bhardwaj said.

Tanning exposes you to 10 to 15 times the ultraviolet rays than the sun does, Dr. Raj Bhardwaj says.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.