After a long, cold winter, Canadians deserve to enjoy all the outdoor activities that summer brings, but protecting your skin from the sun’s rays is vital to your long-term health.
Sun exposure is the major cause of skin cancer, which is now the most common type of cancer and one of the most preventable. If you can’t avoid the sun, wearing sunscreen is one of the best ways to prevent sun damage and the risk of skin cancer.
People of all ages (over 6 months) should apply sunscreen to exposed skin year-round, but it is especially important in the summer when ultraviolet (UV) rays, which cause sunburn, are strongest – even on a cloudy day. Up to 80% of the sun’s rays can get through light cloud, mist and fog.
Broad-spectrum sunscreen, when applied generously to the skin prior to sun exposure, absorbs and reflects UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are the ones that penetrate deep into the skin and can cause premature skin aging and wrinkling, as well as tanning. UVB rays typically burn the top layer of the skin and play a key role in the development of skin cancer.
The SPF, or sun protection factor, in sunscreens indicates the length of time your skin will be protected from UVB rays before you start to burn. Using an SPF 30 sunscreen will allow you to spend 30 times longer in the sun without burning than you could without sunscreen. The higher the SPF number, the greater the amount of protection.
Everyone should use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more. If you’ve had a skin cancer or pre-cancer, you should use a sunscreen with an even higher SPF.
Preventing sunburn is just one reason for wearing sunscreen. Your skin can be damaged by constant sun exposure whether or not you see or feel a burn. Damage from the sun occurs over a lifetime.
Sunscreen is safe for children over 6 months of age and, if used regularly during childhood, can prevent skin cancers from occurring later in life.
- Use sunscreen every day. Make it part of your routine.
- Use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher that is broad spectrum and water resistant (broad spectrum protects you from both UVA and UVB rays)
- Apply generously 20-30 minutes before going out. It takes at least 20 minutes to be absorbed by the skin.
- Reapply every 2 or 3 hours and after swimming or perspiring
- Be sure to apply sunscreen under the edges of your clothing, on the back of your hands and feet, on your neck and ears – places we often miss or forget
- Put sunscreen on before makeup or insect repellent
- Use a lip balm with SPF and reapply as needed
- In extreme heat, some medications may increase your health risk and/or make your skin more sensitive to UV rays. Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist if any of the medications you are taking could be harmful to you if you are exposed to UV rays.
Other sun safety tips
- Avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm when UV rays are strongest, or any time the UV index is 3 or higher
- Cover your arms and legs with loose-fitting, tightly woven and lightweight clothing
- Wear a wide-brim hat to protect your head, face, neck and ears
- Stay in the shade – under trees, awnings or umbrellas
- Wear sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection
Warning signs of skin cancer
Skin cancer (non-melanoma or melanoma) usually starts as an abnormal area or change on any part of the skin. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that you look for and make note of any changes including:
- a sore that doesn’t heal or comes back after healing
- a mole or sore that oozes, bleeds or is crusty
- a change in the colour, size or shape of a mole or birthmark
- a growth or area that is itchy, irritated or sore
- rough or scaly red patches
- small, smooth and shiny lumps that are pearly white, pink or red
- pale white or yellow flat areas that look like scars
- raised lumps that indent in the centre
When skin cancer is found and treated early, the chances of successful treatment are better. Get regular checkups and see your doctor if you have any symptoms or are worried about your health.