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Sun Awareness Week: Choosing the right sunscreen

As National Sun Safety Week comes to a close, we're keeping health at the forefront of our summer plans. As the days continue to get longer and hotter,  it’s important to understand the risks that come with exposure to the sun – and how to appreciate the warm weather safely. 

The biggest risk associated with sun exposure is melanoma, one of the most common cancer types found in young Canadians. In 2021, there were approximately 8,700 new cases of melanoma in Canadians, and outdoor workers are up to 2.5 to 3.5 times more likely to be diagnosed.

The best way to protect against skin cancer is by opting for a seat in the shade instead of in the sun, especially during hours when the UV index is highest (generally between 10am and 4pm). 

If you can’t avoid being out in the sun, the next best thing is to invest in a good sunscreen.

What you should know about sunscreen

There’s a common (and dangerous) misconception that simply slathering on the sunblock can protect from sunburns and skin cancer. In reality, new research has made buying and wearing sunscreen more effective but also more complicated.

The breakdown

What is SPF?
The first thing most sunscreen brands will advertise is their SPF coverage. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, meaning how well a sunscreen protects against UVB rays.

What are UVB rays?
UVB stands for ultraviolet B. UVB rays have long been linked to sunburns on the first layers for your skin – they’re to blame for the red skin and blisters after a long day out in the sun. 

The number of SPF refers to what factor of UVB rays the sunscreen deflects. SPF 15 (the amount recommended by experts) means that, if your skin would normally burn after 10 minutes in the sun, the sunscreen will protect you for 150 minutes. 

Something to consider: higher is not always better! 

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays 
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays

While high SPF sunscreens protect against marginally higher UVB rays, they don’t offer more protection against UVA rays. 

What are UVA rays?
Like the name suggests, ultraviolet B means there is also such a thing as ultraviolet A (UVA) rays. While UVB rays damage the surface of the skin, UVA rays penetrate deeper and have been linked to age-related damage as well as skin cancer. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency says that up to 90 per cent of age-related skin changes are actually due to a lifetime of exposure to UVA rays. 

So, with all of this in mind, what should you look for in a sunscreen?

Broad-Spectrum: broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA in addition to UVB rays, and brands that use the label have to legally pass the test. 

Water resistant: No sunscreen is completely waterproof, but many brands offer water resistance. The product should specify whether it lasts for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming and sweating -- be sure to reapply routinely and always after wiping yourself dry (which removes sunscreen). 

SPF 15 or higher: experts say that SPF 15 is safe for the majority of people. If your family has a history of skin cancer, lupus or if you have very fair skin, consider upping to SPF 30.

If you want to know more about picking the right sunscreen for you (depending on age, allergies or skin tone), check out the resources at

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