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A skin safe summer

Personal health · Aug 6, 2021

Summer skin protection

As we finally start to experience better weather, it's hard to resist staying outside for hours. But that also means we need to be sun savvy — especially when it comes to our kids.

Research shows that 80% of our lifetime sun exposure occurs during childhood,1 and those who are sunburned early in life have a greater risk of developing skin cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer among Canadians.2 The most deadly type of skin cancer, melanoma, is on the rise, too.3

That’s why using sunscreen daily is key.

Sunscreens use mineral and chemical blockers to prevent harmful UVA and UVB rays from penetrating the skin. But there have been concerns about some of the ingredients found in common sunscreens. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) cites recent reports from the US Food and Drug Administration that determined that common chemical sunscreen ingredients such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and others are systemically absorbed into the body after a single application — and that traces of these chemicals can be detected in the skin and blood weeks after their use.4

To that end, the FDA has classified two chemical-based sunscreen ingredients — PABA and trolamine salicylate — as NOT generally safe and effective.4 On the other hand, mineral sunscreen ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, are considered generally safe and effective.4 The latter ingredients do tend to have a bit of a chalky appearance after application.

So which are the better sunscreens to use?

Look for a mineral sunscreen containing titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, but check the SPF number. Many cosmetics and moisturizers include SPF factors of 15, which may be sufficient on a regular workday when you’re outside for a few minutes, but it’s not enough if you’re planning outdoor activities or a day at the beach.

If you’re planning to spend time outside, use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, but not more than 60. Sunscreens with an SPF higher than 60 may not provide any extra protection, but they can encourage people to stay outside longer, or reapply their sunscreen less, because they feel more protected. Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

For a list of sunscreens recognized by the Canadian Dermatology Association, see their website at www.dermatology.ca. The EWG also has a list of sun-safe sunscreens available at www.EWG.org/sunscreen.

Sunscreen only works if you wear it properly.

Sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before heading outside and then reapplied every two hours, or immediately after swimming — even if it's waterproof. It’s also critical that you use enough. Insufficient amounts of sunscreen result in less SPF protection, and most folks only use about 25% of the recommended amount.5 For the best protection for the average size person, you need to use about a quarter of a regular-sized bottle. This is equal to about a golf ball-sized amount or a shot glass full. So a regular-sized bottle should only last you four applications.

But sunscreen is only a start.

In addition to sunscreen, it’s important to adopt other sun-safe behaviours, such as wearing a wide-brimmed hat (at least 3 inches wide) and sun-protective clothing.

When it comes to clothing, the degree of protection depends on the weave and on the chemical additives in the fabric. Darker colours block more UV rays. For the best protection, the tag on the fabric should be listed with a UPF 50 rating.

And don't forget: you can even sunburn your eyes, so use a good pair of sunglasses. Babies should wear them too.

With the right sun protection in place, you’ll be ready to get outside and safely enjoy this long-awaited Canadian summer with the ones you love.


1 WHO. 2009. “Protecting children from ultraviolet radiation.”

2 Government of Canada. 2018. “Sun safety and skin cancer.”

3 Joshua, AM. “Melanoma prevention: are we doing enough? A Canadian perspective.” Curr Oncol. 2012;19(6):e462-e467. doi:10.3747/co.19.1222

4 Environmental Working Group. 2021. “The trouble with ingredients in sunscreens.”

5 AADA. 2021. “Sunscreen FAQs”

Authored by:
Dr. Rhonda Low
Family physician, TELUS Health Care Centres

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