Thursday, June 7, 2018

How to protect yourself while having fun in the sun

Courtnay Epp, Alberta Health Services - It’s been a long, snowy, cold winter in Alberta and people are starting to celebrate the arrival of spring (finally!). With many of us heading outside to enjoy the warm weather, it’s also time to start thinking about sun safety. Taking measures to protect you and your family from the sun will help prevent the long term effects of ultra-violet radiation (UVR) exposure such as skin cancer and the short term effects like sunburn.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Alberta where approximately 1 in 7 Albertans will develop a skin cancer in their lifetime (AB Prevents Cancer). This is why it is so important to protect your skin using a variety of sun avoidance and protective methods. Seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and eye wear, checking the UV index, and wearing sun screen are all great ways to reduce your risk.

However, you might be wondering what exactly is the UV index and how do you choose an appropriate sunscreen? Let me explain. The UV index is an international standard measurement of the strength of sunburn-producing ultraviolet radiation at a particular place and time. It is based on a scale going from low (1-2), moderate (3-5), high (6-7), very high (8-10) to extreme (11+). The higher the UV rating, the more careful you have to be when going outside. Especially between 11am-3pm from April-September where typically, the sun’s rays are the most intense. And remember that the UV index can still be high on cloudy days so be sure to check it along with the weather forecast.

With so many sunscreens on the market, comparing and choosing the best one can be difficult. Choose a sun screen that is broad spectrum (meaning it protects against UVA and UVB rays), has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and is water resistant. The SPF rating tells you how long you can be in the sun without getting burned while wearing sunscreen in comparison to how long you can be in the sun before you burn without wearing sunscreen. Simply put, the higher the SPF, the longer you are able to stay in the sun without getting burned.

For example, if it typically takes you 20 minutes to burn in the sun without wearing sunscreen, and you apply a sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30, it will take you 30 times longer to burn than it normally would (so 20x30=600 minutes). However, a sunscreens purpose is not to increase the amount of time you spend in the sun. They are meant to increase your protection while you have to be out there. Sun screen doesn’t last forever and it is recommended to re-apply every 2 hours or more, especially if you’ve been sweating or in the water.

Now that you know the basics of how to choose an appropriate sunscreen, here are some tips on how to properly apply it. Anyone over the age of 6 months can be using sunscreen. Babies under the age of 6 months have bodies that are much more sensitive than an adult's so they need to be using other forms of sun protection including staying out of the heat. It takes about 20 minutes for sunscreen to be absorbed by the skin so it needs to be applied at least 20 minutes before heading outside. And make sure you use enough. Most people don’t, so be sure to use a generous amount. The average adult requires approximately two to three tablespoons of lotion-formulated sunscreen to cover the whole body, and a teaspoon to cover the face and neck. Always read and follow the application instructions and don’t forget about covering the ears, nose, tops of feet and backs of knees. Also know that sunscreen and insect repellents can be used safely together, but be sure to apply the sunscreen first. And if you have sensitive skin, test for an allergic reaction by applying it to a small patch of skin before spreading it over your whole body. If the skin turns red or otherwise reacts, change products.

For more information on how to protect you or your family from the harmful effects of sun exposure please visit the Alberta Prevents Cancer website.

Sources: AB Prevents Cancer, Health Canada, Canadian Cancer Foundation

Courtnay Epp is a Health Promotion Facilitator with Alberta Health Services. She can be reached via e-mail,

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