A healthy tan? Think again

By Randall Mang

A healthy tan? There’s no such thing, says Jennifer Beecker, an Ottawa Hospital dermatologist who regularly witnesses and helps treat the results of sun damage.

Fortunately, a growing awareness about the risks of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays is having an impact on how people spend their time in the sun, she says. And sunscreens tailored to various skin types and applications provide protection against the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays, enabling Canadians of all ages to spend time outdoors in a safer manner year-round.

For Dr. Beecker, sun protection starts with seeking shade and wearing protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses. And, of course, applying sunscreen. “Everybody should be doing all those components,” she advises.

She says that Canadians have access to a wide range of sun protection options, suggesting that the Canadian Dermatology Association (CDA) website is a useful resource, with its extensive list of products that offer good UV protection (www.dermatology.ca/programs-resources/programs/recognized-products).

In general terms, Dr. Beecker recommends choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 that protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Kateline Turgeon, director of national training at La Roche-Posay and Vichy, says that sunscreen is not about enabling you to stay out longer in the sun – it’s about guarding against UV rays when you pursue outdoor activities. For her, the best sunscreen is the one that doesn’t stay in the bottle. “You can have the best possible product, but if you don’t use it, it’s not going to protect you,” she says.

Studies have shown that consumers apply only about a third of the recommended amount of sunscreen, says Ms. Turgeon. “If you use only a fraction of the recommended quantity, you can imagine that you don’t get the protection that is written on the box.”

One way to address the issue of inadequate application is consumer education and La Roche-Posay has recently launched behindthespf.ca, an interactive website illustrating UVA and UVB risks.

Another approach is to develop the best possible sunscreen, says Ms. Turgeon. “Companies are working hard to create a texture that is pleasing.” She believes that when the sunscreen feels comfortable to the skin, people are more likely to use a generous quantity, and apply and reapply as necessary.

Reapplication is important. Sunscreen is not a brick wall; its absorption capacity reaches limits at some point, says Ms. Turgeon, who adds that sunscreen needs to be applied generously and then reapplied every two hours. Further, a sunscreen’s effectiveness may naturally be shortened when you swim or sweat.

A number of innovative products are available, especially for children and sports enthusiasts, says Dr. Beecker, mentioning examples of sunscreens that come in the form of sticks or that can be applied to wet skin. “This is useful when it’s humid, when people are sweating or when they’ve been swimming. It’s great for parents when their children are in and out of the water,” she says, adding that no sunscreen is really waterproof but that a “water resistant” label indicates that sunscreens maintain their SPF protection level after 40 or 80 minutes of water immersion.

Ms. Turgeon notes that a new La Roche-Posay sunscreen stick has been formulated to be applied to very sensitive zones, such as the eyelids. “It doesn’t drip in the eyes, which is an important consideration for people who play a lot of sports and sweat outside in the sun.”

Making sun protection easy to use and part of a regular routine is an important step, especially for families with young children. “About 80 per cent of all the sun exposure we get in our lifetime happens before we turn 18,” Ms. Turgeon explains. “Each time a person’s skin burns before the age of 18, it increases the risk of sun damage and skin cancer.”

She believes that education starts with families and has to be reinforced in primary school and then again in high school. “The more [children] are exposed to the idea that wearing sunscreen is normal, the better their chances of reducing sun damage,” says Ms. Turgeon.

While awareness about the importance of sun protection is growing, Dr. Beecker has observed a difference in attitude among various age groups. Older people, she says, grew up during a time when a tan was considered healthy and beautiful. That kind of thinking is hard to change. In a large percentage of people over 30, she has also noticed a common misconception – the belief that as long as you don’t get sunburned, you are OK.

Teenagers and people in their twenties are generally better informed, according to Dr. Beecker. “They already know the risks, but are still actively seeking a tan,” she says, adding that there are parallels in other risk-taking behaviours this group engages in, like smoking or drinking and driving.

“The tan, to be honest, is quite a dated look,” says Dr. Beecker, who finds evidence to support this belief in fashion magazines. “None of the models are tanned, and if there is ever a tan in there, it comes from a bottle, and models are quite open about it,” she says.

When people realize that sun exposure goes hand in hand with an aging effect, they will change their attitude, Dr. Beecker suggests. “They need to realize that their natural skin tone is quite beautiful.”

Conversely, she says, “a tan is a sign that your body is trying to protect itself from sun damage. When UV rays hit the skin, they cause a mutation in the cells. The cell is trying to protect itself by putting a ‘hat’ on. It makes a lot of pigment and pushes it to the top to create a cover. When you’re seeing that colour in your skin, it’s a sign that your body is getting damaged.”

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Sun safety tips

Now that you’ve got a sunscreen that works for you, what’s next? Dr. Jennifer Beecker shares tips for using it properly.

  1. Apply sunscreen prior to going out. The recommendation is to put on sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before being exposed to the sun.
  2. Use enough sunscreen. Dermatologists advise applying a shot glass (two tablespoons) worth of sunscreen to the exposed areas of the face and body. Another guideline is to put one teaspoon of sunscreen on the face, head and neck, one teaspoon on each arm, two teaspoons on each leg, one teaspoon on the front, one on the back, etc.
  3.  Reapply sunscreen frequently. It’s recommended that you should reapply sunscreen every two hours, or more often if you’re swimming or sweating.
  4. Don’t miss a spot. Make sure you cover areas like the back of the hands and ears, and wear a lip balm with sun protection.
  5.  Check the expiry date. Sunscreens degrade over time, so a product that is past its expiry date may not offer the protection promised on the package.
  6.  Combine sunscreen with other forms of sun protection. Dr. Beecker recommends seeking shade and wearing a hat, sunglasses and protective clothing.