Sunscreen, UV-protective clothing are important for
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“One in six of us will die from cancer.”
It was a sobering statistic delivered by Dr. Cary Adams, chief executive officer of the Switzerland-based non-governmental organization Union for International Cancer Control, during a global event for media and dermatologists held at the La Roche-Posay Thermal Centre in France last month.
That number has risen two-thirds in the past 20 years, an increase that was attributed to the growth of the global population as well as its advancing age. And it’s anticipated there will be a similar increase in the next 20 years, according to Adams.
In Canada, the number of people expected to die of cancer is one in four, according to 2022 statistics from the Canadian Cancer Society. While lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancers are the most commonly diagnosed cancers in Canada, it’s estimated that 9,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with melanoma skin cancer this year — 1,200 of whom will die.
Prevention is key when it comes to skin cancer. The consistent and conscientious use of sunscreen is an important aspect of skin cancer prevention, according to Dr. Monica Li, a Vancouver-based double-board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at the Department of Dermatology and Skin Sciences at the University of B.C.
“Sunscreen of your preference should be applied daily to provide you with a longer period of time when skin cells can still be protected despite direct sun exposure,” Li says. “SPF — or sun protection factor — is a measure of how much UV radiation is needed to produce sunburn on protected skin after applying sunscreen, relative to the amount of UV radiation needed to produce sunburn on unprotected skin with no SPF.
“For instance, SPF 30 means that the skin will have 30 times longer before developing a sunburn for an individual who wore sunscreen versus someone who did not.”
Sunscreen formulations feature either chemical filters such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, or mineral filers such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Most widely available sunscreen products are broad spectrum, which means they protect from both UVA and UVB radiation. Ensuring the chosen sunscreen is, in fact, a broad-spectrum formulation is both “critical and highly recommended,” according to Li.
“Both contribute to signs of premature skin aging and skin cancer development,” she says of the two types of ultraviolet rays.
Sunscreen formulations should be reapplied every two hours during “prolonged periods” of outdoor exposure, according to Li. If swimming, a water-resistant formula should be used and reapplied every 40 to 80 minutes, or as directed on the product labelling, for adequate protection.
“Individuals often have a false sense of security or overestimate the extent of protection after applying SPF, believing that their skin is now protected from any sun damage, no matter the duration,” Li points out. “(This is) not true.”
Apply sunscreen to the face, neck and chest, as well as any other areas of skin that are directly exposed to the sun such as the scalp, top of the feet, hands, ears and lips. For those who choose to wear makeup, Li advises to apply sunscreen underneath skin makeup such as foundation or powders to “ensure adequate skin coverage for protection,” or consider a tinted sunscreen such as the La Roche-Posay Anthelios Mineral One SPF 50+ Tinted Facial Sunscreen.
Pay attention to the expiry date of the product you’ve had hanging around since last summer — or for a few summers — as the effectiveness of the product is impacted over time, according to Li. Avoid storing sunscreen in a hot place such as the glove compartment of your car as heat may cause ingredient breakdown and therefore reduce the sunscreen’s overall effectiveness.
Another area of concern when it comes to sunscreen application, according to Li is in regard to the amount applied.
“Individuals often do not use enough SPF to begin with,” she says. “For instance, one teaspoon of SPF is needed to provide adequate protection of the face and neck. Often, sunscreen is under-applied so the sun protection factor isn’t even fully available to the user.”
But proper sun protection doesn’t end with sunscreen.
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, there are four key wearables that help you stay safe in the sun: hats, sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection, clothing with a rated UV protection factor (UPF), and tightly woven clothing that “prevents the rays of light from passing through to your skin.”
Many brands, such as the Vancouver-headquartered company Lululemon and Japanese retailer Uniqlo, are incorporating sun protection technology into their textiles and designs in a response to increasing customer demand for options they hope will help protect against harmful rays.
“We wanted to provide an alternative of day-to-day UV protection,” Masahiko Nakasuji, UNIQLO Chief Marketing Officer, North America, says of the technology, which is part of the brand’s LifeWear approach. “Under the concept of ‘wearable UV protection’ we aim to provide a UV protection lineup and an easier way to provide UV protection.”
The company first introduced products with a UPF in 2004. Since then, the offering has become a bestseller for the brand, prompting the product expansion to include more than 40 pieces.
“Our UV Protection collection blocks over 90 per-cent of UV rays,” Nakasuji says, noting that select fabrics have also earned the Skin Cancer Foundation’s Seal of Recommendation as an effective protector against UV rays. “We offer a wide range of products in the collection that feature UPF ratings from 15 to 50-plus, which indicates how long your skin is protected against the sun when compared to not wearing anything.”
According to Nakasuji, the demand for clothing with a UPF will only increase in the future.
“As the climate crisis continues to impact daily life, we can expect a greater desire for these UV-protective pieces from the public,” Nakasuji says.
With proper sunscreen and protective clothing in the rotation, Li says there are a few more factors for a fully “comprehensive strategy to protect against the sun” including seeking shade and avoiding prolonged sun exposure during the peak of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Choosing the right sunscreen for you
With an abundance of sunscreens on the market, it can be tricky to find the perfect potion for your preferences. Sunscreen formulations can range from powders and creams to lotions and sprays, which are really just a matter of desired texture and application ease. In order to help streamline the selection process for those with more targeted skin concerns, we asked Dr. Monica Li, a Vancouver-based double-board-certified dermatologist and clinical instructor at the Department of Dermatology and Skin Sciences at the University of B.C., to dish on her top tips for selecting an SPF.
“Sunscreens can be used for all skin types and skin tones,” Li stresses. But, for those with sensitive skin, she notes that mineral sunscreens with UV filters such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or iron oxide may prove most suitable. “There is emerging scientific evidence suggesting that those with pigmentary conditions, for example melasma, may benefit more from mineral sunscreens,” Li says. For those with highly sensitive skin, the dermatologist recommends testing any new formula using a small amount of product on the skin of the wrist or behind the ears for two to three days in order to observe any skin reactions prior to a fuller application.
“Individuals undergoing cancer treatments often have increased, though temporary, sensitivities of their skin due to side effects of their medications,” Li says. “They may experience dermatitis related to radiation therapy, skin dryness, hand-foot syndrome or folliculitis, the inflammation of their hair follicles. Some of the symptoms include redness, itchiness, burning or tenderness of their skin.” Due to this increased sensitivity, Li recommends mineral sunscreen formulations with a minimum SPF of 50 and broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection. “A mineral formulation for use on the body is important, as well, as skin concerns related to cancer treatments can occur beyond the head and neck region,” Li says. In addition to sunscreen, she urges post-cancer treatment skin care to include gentle, soap-free and pH-adjusted cleansers and moisturizers with ingredients such as glycerin and thermal spring water to soothe skin.
Eczema, specifically atopic dermatitisis, is the most common skin condition experienced by Canadians, with 17 per-cent of people experiencing the condition in their lifetime, according to the Canadian Dermatology Association. Commonly experienced factors include red, itchy and swollen patches of skin, which are sensitive. Because the skin barrier is “impaired” by the condition, Li recommends considering mineral sunscreens to “reduce possible reactions with chemical UV filters.” She suggests opting for formulations that contain moisture-boosting hyaluronic acid to help “support improved hydration to help repair and protect a compromised skin surface.”
Li advises speaking with your dermatologist or family doctor to receive additional sunscreen recommendations that best suited to your skin needs and type. The website of the Canadian Dermatology Association, dermatology.ca, is another “credible source for more information,” she says.
For acne-prone skin, Dr. Li recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that boasts a lightweight, non-greasy texture so it doesn’t cause clogging of pores. “Look for the word ‘non-comedogenic’ as the formulation has been developed with those who have acne-prone or oily skin in mind,” she says. The dermatologist reveals that sunscreens compatible with acne-prone or oily skin types often have matte finish to reduce shine on skin, such as La Roche-Posay Anthelios XL Anti-Shine Dry Touch Sunscreen SPF 60.