Before you hit the beach, read up on proper sun safety, how to choose and use sunscreen, and how to avoid burns.
It’s a sunny summer day and you’re planning to take your kids to the beach. A generation ago, it would have been a matter of packing up towels, bathing suits, and snacks. Today, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Skin cancer scares
Three years ago, Rachel Garrick had a mole removed and was shocked to learn that it was melanoma, a form of skin cancer. While melanoma is relatively rare, 90 percent of cases are believed to be linked to overexposure to the sun, as are other forms of skin cancer.
Luckily, Garrick’s melanoma was caught early. Her brush with skin cancer has nevertheless made her vigilant about protecting herself and her two-year-old daughter Henrietta from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Fortunately for Garrick and for the rest of us, we can take precautions to make sure our families stay safe while enjoying the sun.
Dress for success
Ward off the sun’s rays with a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends wearing garments made of tightly woven fabrics that don’t allow the sun to penetrate. You can check this by holding a fabric up to the light to see how much filters through. Clothing specially made for sun protection is widely available and is tagged with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) indicating its level of protection.
Select a sunscreen
When choosing a sunscreen, look for three important properties:
- water resistant
- sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30
- broad spectrum, meaning that it blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays
With those factors in mind, selecting a good sunscreen should be a snap; however, there’s recently been a lively debate about how much SPF is best and which ingredients are safe.
The one percent advantage
Researchers have found evidence that using a sunscreen with SPF 50 or more may create a false sense of security, leading sunbathers to apply too little and stay in the sun too long. The Skin Cancer Foundation points out that a product with SPF 30 filters out 97 percent of UVB rays, while a sunscreen with SPF 50 filters out 98 percent, only one percent more.
The main ingredients
Chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin where they filter out UV rays. The David Suzuki Foundation and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) caution against common sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone, which may act as a hormone disruptor, and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A thought to be associated with skin tumours. On the other hand, dermatology authorities such as the Skin Cancer Foundation believe that the dangers posed by those ingredients may be overstated.
Physical sunblocks use ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which sit on the skin rather than being absorbed. The drawback is that these products may leave a chalky film on the skin. To reduce this effect, newer products have been developed using nanoparticles that don’t leave a film on the skin. Health Canada points out that these ultra-small substances may not behave the same as their larger counterparts and advises ongoing safety monitoring.
For more information about the safest and most effective sunscreen options, check out the EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens (ewg.org/2013sunscreen). Whichever sunscreen you choose, apply a generous amount
15 minutes before going out into the sun, and apply a new coat every two hours. Also, protect your lips with an SPF 30 lip balm.
Protect those peepers
Over time, excessive exposure to ultraviolet light can increase the risk of developing cataracts or macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness. Protect your eyes with sunglasses that filter out 99 to 100 percent of damaging UVA and UVB rays. A good pair of sunglasses doesn’t have to cost a lot, and not all expensive brands provide the needed protection.
Remember to check the Government of Canada’s Daily UV Forecast for your area. Even cloudy days can have surprisingly high ultraviolet radiation levels.
Embrace the shade
Ducking under a sun umbrella or retreating beneath the branches of a shady tree will not only allow you to escape damaging rays, but will also give your body a chance to cool down and avoid heat exhaustion (see “Summertime SOS” sidebar). This is especially important around midday, when the sun is most intense.
While it’s true that our bodies need sunlight to make vitamin D, reducing our exposure to the sun doesn’t have to mean developing a vitamin D deficiency. Taking a supplement and eating foods rich in vitamin D, such as salmon and fortified milk, can provide you with the amount you need.
Heat exhaustion is a condition that can arise in hot, humid conditions when someone hasn’t been drinking enough fluids. Children, whose bodies are less able to regulate heat, are especially at risk.
Heavy sweating, clamminess, nausea, and dizziness are symptoms of heat exhaustion and should be treated immediately. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, which is a life-threatening condition. If you suspect someone is overheating, remove them from the heat right away. If they are awake, give them fluids. A tepid sponge bath may also help.
Symptoms of heat stroke include dry skin, confusion, and loss of consciousness. These symptoms mean that the child or adult has lost their natural cooling mechanisms and is in need of immediate medical attention.
To avoid problems with overheating, drink water frequently, take breaks from sun, and watch for early signs of heat exhaustion.
Keeping wee ones safe
As Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat says, “It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” He was right. As long as we know what precautions to take, there’s no limit to the summer fun we can have with our kids.
- Keep babies under six months old out of the sun completely.
- Apply a good sunscreen and remember to reapply after swimming. Don’t forget especially vulnerable spots such as ears, nose, top of feet, and
- behind knees.
- Limit playtime in the sun when UV rays are most intense, 11 am to 4 pm.
- Set up a shady play area—whether it’s under a beach umbrella, tree, or specially designed SPF sun tent.
- Make sure children wear a wide-brimmed hat with a back flap and UVA and UVB protective sunglasses.
- Dress children in loose, light-coloured clothing made of a tight-weave fabric.