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Article written by Dr. Beatrice Wang, a dermatologist practicing in Montreal, Quebec. Dr. Wang is also an Assistant Professor of Dermatology and the Director of the Melanoma Clinic at McGill University.
Like everyone else, I appreciate sunshine. Especially after a long dark winter, people are happier, moods are brighter, skies are clearer.
But unlike everyone else, every day I see the damage that sun does to skin. As a dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology, as well as the director of a melanoma clinic, teaching people to protect their skin from the sun is one of my greatest challenges. While the sun does us a lot of good –indeed, we could not live without it – it can also age our skin prematurely, burn our skin, and worst of all, mutate our skin cells and cause cancer.
I have noticed that all of the warnings in newspapers and on television about the damage caused by the sun’s rays seem to provoke two extreme reactions:
1. People become so afraid that they feel they should hide from the sun entirely, and then feel guilty if they get some sun; or
2. People feel that they cannot protect themselves adequately, or that all that UVA/UVB talk does not apply to them, and so they use sunscreen only sporadically or not at all.
We do not have to fall into either extreme; with some forethought and protection, we can enjoy the benefits that sun can bring us. If we can modify our behaviour, and demystify the sometimes confusing rules of what we need to do to protect ourselves and our families, there is no reason to feel fear.
While we use physical protection such as shade, parasols, clothes, hats, sunglasses to protect ourselves, we should also look to sunscreens as a tool to protect our skin so that we can safely go outside and enjoy our favourite activities.
With all the advice, information and warnings about the sun in recent years it is no wonder that there is a lot of confusion and misinformation. We will now explore some of the common myths and misperceptions about the sun and sun protection.
Myth 1: Sunscreen sprays do not work as well as creams or lotions.
Fact: Sunscreen can work as a cream, lotion, spray, gel or stick, as long as you apply it properly as instructed on the package. For any kind of sunscreen, reapplication every two hours is required.
Myth 2: The higher the SPF, the better.
Fact: SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is measured on a curve, not a straight line. For example, SPF 2 protects you from about 50% of UV rays, SPF 15 from about 93% and SPF 30 from about 97%.
Certain very high SPF sunscreens (SPF 60, for example) are most appropriate for special cases, such as concerns about hyper pigmentation, or marked hypersensitivity to the sun.
It is important to note that SPF does not measure how much UVA protection you are getting, so higher SPF sunscreens do not necessarily have increased protection against UVA exposure.
Myth 3: Sunscreen completely blocks Vitamin D.
Fact: Sunscreen does not block vitamin D absorption, but it does block out the UV rays that allow the body to produce it. However, so little sun exposure is required to produce the required amount of Vitamin D that it does not justify the risks of unprotected sun exposure.
Myth 4: Expensive sunscreens are best.
Fact: As with everything else in life, when you pay for a sunscreen, you could actually end up paying primarily for expensive packaging. Sunscreens across the price spectrum that meet the requirements set out by the Canadian Dermatology Association are all effective in preventing sun damage if used correctly. As long as they protect yourself from both UVA and UVB rays, you can choose whichever brand you will use consistently.
Myth 5: Tanning beds give you a “base tan” which will protect you and prepare you for your trip to Florida.
Fact: Tanning represents damage to the skin, and tanning beds are not regulated under the Food and Drug Act, so you have no way of knowing the intensity of the UV rays to which you are being exposed. The best protection against strong sun in warmer climates is to use a higher SPF sunscreen from the time you get off the airplane, and to limit the amount of direct exposure you have to the sun.
Myth 6: People with dark skin do not need sunscreen.
Fact: Daily sun protection needs to be a regular habit for people with all skin types. As well, some African-Canadians have problems with blotchy pigmentation, and sunscreen is important during its treatment to even out the complexion.
Myth 7: Sunscreen itself can be a cause of cancer.
Fact: Sunscreen is not a carcinogen. Using sunscreens with an SPF below 15 may allow you to stay in the sun longer without burning, but they will not protect you against all UV exposure. Stick to proper application of sunscreen with at least SPF 15, look for both UVA and UVB on the bottle.
Myth 8: In Canada, people do not need sunscreen in the winter.
Fact: The prevalence of UV rays has nothing to do with the temperature, and UV rays are present year-round. UV rays can actually be intensified by reflection of snow.
Myth 9: No need for sunscreen on grey, cloudy days.
Fact: While UV rays might not be as strong on a cloudy day, they are still present. One common cause of sunburn is the sudden appearance of sun for which one was not prepared. As well, while the clouds might make it feel cooler, UV radiation is not linked to temperature, and may still be quite high. . Sun protection should be a daily habit, irrespective of the weather.
Myth 10: You cannot get damaged by the sun riding in the car or sitting by a window.
Fact: Glass reduces transmission of UVB rays, but some UVA rays get through, and their effect can add up over the years.
Myth 11: Using SPF 15 moisturizer and SPF 15 foundation gives SPF 30 protection.
Fact: SPFs are not additive. You can only achieve the protection of the highest SPF product applied.
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