The sun and your skin (sun protection)

The skin serves many important functions, including protecting the body from minor injuries, regulating body temperature, and defending the body against infection. Keeping the skin strong and healthy is essential to ensuring ongoing protection.

Risks associated with sun exposure

Sunlight is composed of different types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, including two that can be harmful to the skin:

  • UVA rays
    • Are present during all daylight hours.
    • Can pass through clouds, windows and clothing.
    • Are responsible for premature skin aging (known as photoaging) and can also cause skin cancer.
  • UVB rays
    • Are the main cause of sunburns (inflammatory response of the skin).
    • Also play a key role in the development of skin cancer and photoaging.

Photoaging and skin cancer are long-term effects of sun exposure. A single outing without sunscreen, however, can be enough for the skin to burn. Preventive measures aimed at reducing the risks associated with sun exposure can provide both short and long-term protection.

Prevention

To protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun, the following measures are recommended:

  • Avoid sun exposure, especially between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun's rays are at their strongest.
  • Stay in the shade as much as possible, even when it is cloudy.
  • Wear dark coloured, loose-fitting and tightly woven clothing that cover as much skin as possible.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat that provides shade to the face, ears and back of the neck.
    • Be sure to use a hat made of tightly woven fabric (avoid straw hats).
  • Wear sunglasses that provide UV protection year-round (look for a label that says "UV400" or "100% UV Protection").
    • Sunglasses protect the eyes (e.g., from cataracts) as well as the skin around the eyes.
  • Apply sunscreen on exposed skin.
    • Use a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher that protects against UVA and UVB rays (make sure it says "broad spectrum protection" on the label).
    • Opt for sunscreens that bear the logo of the Canadian Dermatology Association's Skin Health Program.
    • Apply a generous amount of sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before exposure. Adults need at least 30 mL (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen per application.
    • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours, and after swimming or sweating heavily.
    • Use a lip balm with an SPF 30 or higher.
    • Do not use sunscreen that is expired as it may be less effective.

Contrary to popular belief, the benefit of tanning for added protection from sunburn, or having a base tan, does not outweigh the risks. In fact, tanning beds have been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer. It is therefore strongly advised to avoid tanning salons.

The skin of infants younger than 6 months is much more sensitive than that of adults. To protect children from the harmful effects of the sun, stay in the shade. When outside and exposed to sunlight, children should wear a hat, sunglasses and loose fitting clothing. If sun exposure is unavoidable in spite of taking these precautionary measures, the use of a physical sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide is recommended.

Sunburn treatment

You are at a higher risk of sunburn if:

  • You are fair-skinned.
  • You spend time in the mountains or the tropics.
  • You spend time outside on the sand, snow or water (they reflect UV rays).
  • You take medications that make the skin more sensitive to sunburn.

If sunburn does occur, you can take pain relievers (e.g., Tylenol, Advil) or apply cold compresses to alleviate the pain. Drink plenty of water and stay in the shade until the redness and pain go away.

When should I see a medical professional?

  • If you have a severe sunburn (e.g., skin blistering or severe pain).
  • If you show signs of dehydration (e.g., increased thirst, decreased urine, or very dry mouth).
  • If you have a fever, chills or nausea.
  • If you experience confusion or severe headache.

For more information:

Canadian Dermatology Association

www.dermatology.ca

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