By Liza Finlay
You’re packing up for a day at the beach, and the mental list goes something like this: bathing suits, check; hats, check; sunscreen, uh (long pause, head scratch, hurried examination of overflowing cabinet full of bottles of varying expiry dates, SPF levels and formulations). “Check, check, and triple-check,” you mutter as three containers of sunscreen get chucked into your brimming bag.
While you, like many Canadians, get a big check mark for being conscientious about your family’s health – we spent a whopping $70 million-plus on sun-care products last year – does sun safety need to be this complicated? Not really, say the experts. Here’s all you need to know to make your next sunscreen purchase a smart one.
Sunscreen for Everyone!
You’ve got an infant block for the baby, a kids’ waterproof sunscreen for your busy toddler and a couple of adult formulations for you and that stubborn spouse who resists your attempts to cover him head-to-toe – in sunscreen, that is.
But do you really need a separate sunscreen for everyone in the family? Only if you want to – that is, if different family members prefer different formulations or brands. “The differences are not actual content,” says Dr. Lisa Kellett, a dermatologist at SpaMedica in Toronto. “They all contain the same vital ingredients.”
Those ingredients are ones that either physically or chemically block ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most sunscreens act below the deadskin-cell layer of the skin. Examples of ingredients that act this way are Parsol 1789, oxybenzone, octisalate, avobenzone, octocrylene and octioxate. Physical blockers, such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide, form a layer on the skin’s surface that physically shields skin from the sun, offering somewhat superior protection over nonphysical blockers. (While older physical blockers left a chalky white residue on the skin’s surface, many, such as Ombrelle Extreme and Clinique CityBlock, are now formulated with much finer microparticles that provide a nearly invisible barrier.)
What does differ from sunscreen to sunscreen is formulation – cream versus foam or spray, tinted versus untinted. With sunscreens available in such a wide range of textures and tones, there’s one for every taste.
For example, facial formulations contain all the same ingredients as body formulations but are somewhat thinner in consistency; they may feel better, but they protect just the same. So if you prefer a facial formulation that doesn’t leave your cheeks feeling like they’re covered with an oil slick, by all means, use it. Foams and sprays are also less greasy, making them a good bet for acne-prone teens. The bottom line: choose whatever kind of sunscreen you like; just make sure you wear it.
Kids Have More Fun: While it’s true that the content in adult and child formulations is primarily the same, gimmicks such as a green tinting, foamy textures and sparkles make application fun for kids, which means your little ones will be more likely to comply, says Dr. Lynn From, a dermatologist and professor of medicine and pathobiology at the University of Toronto. Also, she adds, the bright hues of tinted sunscreens help illuminate bits of baby skin that you might have missed.
TIP: Because sunscreens may bleed into your child’s eyes, Kellett suggests circling eyes with a wax-based lip balm instead of sunscreen. “The wax in the balm prevents the sunscreen from running into the eyes, and many lip balms come with an SPF, offering added protection.” And remember, if your child is under the age of six months, it’s best if he avoids the sun altogether.
For the Men of the House: The Canadian Cancer Society tells us that while the incidence of most cancers is on the decline, skin cancer is among the few cancers on the rise (the others ate thyroid, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and lung and prostate cancers in women and men respectively). And it seems that more men than women develop melanoma, the deadliest from of skin cancer. Doctors suspect that’s because, despite the scary statistics, guys just don’t get into the sunscreen habit the way women do.
Many men find applying creams all over their bodies a feminine habit, says From: “It’s too girly for them, and others complain that the products are too sticky.” For mulish males of all ages – and rebellious teens – who shun sunscreen, she recommends one of the newer sprays that offer good sun protection without all the rubbing (Ombrelle 15 Spray and Life Brand Sport Spray SPF 30 are Kellett’s favorites in this category). “Men with lots of body hair find the mists easier to apply,” says From. “The product can be spritzed on evenly, penetrating the hair without getting stuck in it.”
TIP: Because sprays are made with an alcohol base, they are considerably less greasy than lotions and creams, making them a good bet for teens with acne concerns.
Top 5 Sunscreen-Neglected Areas: According to From, the areas we most overlook when slathering on sunscreen are the ears, tops of feet, back, shoulders and neck.
Ask the Doctors: Dermatologists Lisa Kellett and Lynn From address a few burning issues about sunscreen
Q: How much sunscreen should I use?
A: As a general rule, you should apply sunscreen liberally enough that you see a white film on your skin. “If the opaque layer becomes invisible as you smooth it on,” says Kellett, “you’ve stretched the screen too thin.”
Q: Is there a right time to apply sunscreen before going outside?
A: Yes. “Sunscreens work most effectively if they are applied 15 to 20 minutes before you head out into the sun,” says From. “That’s the amount of time it takes for the product to ‘set’ on the skin.” There’s another timing issue you need to think about, says From: “Consider that if you apply an entire family’s sunscreen while outdoors, by the time the third or fourth child gets theirs, the child will have already had an excessive dose of UV rays.”
Q: How often should I reapply my and my family’s sunscreen?
A: Reapply it every two to three hours to be safe. But if your kids are in and out of the water, you may want to reapply more frequently, even if the block your little ones are wearing is labeled “water-resistant” or “waterproof.” That’s not because the sunscreen has washed off, says From, “but rather because vigorous toweling can rub off the product.”
Q: Do sunscreens have expiry dates?
A: Yes, and some products will have that date printed right on the package. If not, expect yours to last for a couple of seasons, unless it has been exposed to either extreme heat or extreme cold. “Sunscreens can degenerate if fried in the sun,” says From. “Or if they’re frozen – so don’t leave them at the cottage all winter and expect to use them the following summer.”
Q: I have sensitive skin. Can I still use sunscreen?
A: Yes, start by looking for sunscreens marked “hypoallergenic,” meaning they contain far fewer fragrance and colour additives but still have all of the protective benefits of regular sunscreens. “Children’s blocks may contain slightly fewer preservatives, which some adults find easier to tolerate,” says Kellett. If you’re still having trouble, your dermatologist may recommend an allergy test to determine which ingredient in the formula is bothering you. Then she can recommend a different sunscreen for you – one that doesn’t contain any of the allergens.
Dr. Mom: Skin Cancer (including melanoma, basal cell and squamous cell) is still the most common form of cancer: almost 80,000 Canadians are diagnosed with it each year. A shocking 80 percent of those diagnoses are made thanks to the watchful eyes of wives, mothers and grandmothers. “I see so many men in my practice that are brought in by their partners,” says From. “Women just seem to be more vigilant about detecting questionable marks on their family members.”
The experts say that we should play detective at least once a month. Examine skin from head to toe for “anything that changes in shape, colour or size,” says Kellett. “Forget this business about only black marks being cause of concern. I’ve seen brown moles that are malignant and black blotches that are benign.”
Kellett tells patients to stand naked in from of a full-length mirror when they’re doing a skin inspection, using a second, hand-held mirror to view their backs. The easiest time to examine the kids for moles and discolorations is while toweling them off after a bath.
TIP: “Using a blow dryer on hair makes detecting suspicious marks on the scalp easier,” says Kellett. “The hair flies up, revealing the scalp, an often-overlooked area.”
Gearing Up: While sunscreens are good, nothing beats the protection offered by clothing. “Even a cotton T – shirt will block out most of the damaging UV rays,” says From, who tells her patients to keep their kids clothed no matter how high the mercury soars. Most broad-brimmed, cloth hats offer an SPF of 50, making them a must. But, cautions Kellett, hats should not replace sunscreen; 85 per cent of harmful UVB rays bounce back from concrete, water and sand. Special, chemically treated clothing offering high SPF values are also taking up more and more space on retail racks. Look for well-known brands of sun-blocking clothes and hats, such as Physician Endorsed.