Sun protection: What you need, according to experts

Tips and products to safeguard yourself from harmful rays

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month.

Melanoma is one of the most common types of cancer among Canadians aged 15 to 49 with excessive sun exposure leading to the majority of diagnosed cases.

Although there are several types of skin cancer, melanoma is the deadliest form. With early detection, however, the five-year survival rate is 99 per cent.

Melanoma is on the rise, especially in women under 40. In the 1930s, it affected about one in 1500 people, according to the Melanoma Network of Canada — less than 100 years later, that number has ballooned to one in 63 people.

How to protect yourself 

We asked Dr. Monica Li, a double board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia to weigh in.

She said the most widely available SPF products are ‘broad-spectrum’ which protect against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. She said that is “critical and highly recommended,” given both contribute to signs of premature skin aging and the development of skin cancer.

SPF (sun protection factor) is simply part of a comprehensive strategy that can include seeking shade, avoiding direct sun exposure during peak hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and using sun-protective clothing like a wide-brimmed hat which can protect the scalp, ears and lips from sun damage and sunburns, and wraparound sunglasses, she said.

“Easily exposed sites are most likely to get sunburnt, particularly the head and neck region. The shoulders, upper back, lips and ears are also common areas to get a sunburn because of the reach of UV radiation and they can be sites where individuals may also forget to apply SPF,” Li said. “The tops of feet are often forgotten as well until we see the tan from the sandal straps, and this often lasts well past the summer months.”

“Over time, with cumulative sun damage, signs of premature skin aging will appear,” she added. “These include fine lines, a dull skin tone and uneven pigmentation such as sunspots. Skin cancers may also arise, and these do not necessarily appear only on sun-exposed sites.”

Think a pre-tan will keep you safe? Think again.

“Getting a base tan also does not protect an individual from getting a sunburn afterwards. A ‘”base tan’” is simply not healthy. UV radiation is a known human carcinogen and there is no safe dose of UV light,” Li said.

She said a sunless tanning cream, lotion or spray that temporarily dyes the cells at the skin’s surface is a safe alternative to direct sun exposure for those who want some colour.

If you are outside for a while, reapply sunscreen every two hours and opt for a water-resistant SPF if you are spending time in the water.

For those interested in the science behind it — “SPF, or sun protection factor, is a measure of how much UV radiation is needed to produce sunburn on protected skin after applying sunscreen, relative to the amount of UV radiation needed to produce sunburn on unprotected skin with no SPF,” Li explained. “For instance, SPF 30 means the skin will have 30 times longer before developing a sunburn for an individual who wore sunscreen versus someone who did not.”

Assess your risk and get sun savvy

Neutrogena partnered with Melanoma Canada for the month of May to spotlight Canadian on Instagram impacted by melanoma and focus on the importance of sun safety and early detection.  

This skin self-exam tool is a great resource for those wanting to know more about their risk.

Which sunscreens to use

Dr. Benjamin Barankin, Toronto dermatologist and medical director of Toronto Dermatology Centre, answers said sun avoidance, when possible, is best and he recommends reapplying sunscreen after towelling/getting wet/sweating or every three to four hours if out and about. Most people put on about a half of what they need, so be generous when screening up, he said.

Credit: Nadia Moharib,

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