“Hanging out” in the sun on the patio by the pool, has long been a favourite Canadian pastime. With our long winters and short summers, we certainly love the warmth of the sun. The sun has been worshipped by many for centuries. It helps our food to grow and it makes us feel good. It enables our bodies to make Vitamin D. The sun was “lifted to new heights” in the early 1920’s when a tan became a symbol of wealth - of those who had time to recreate and money to travel to exotic places.
Now we’re paying. For many, after years of working the land, sunbathing and spending increased amounts of time outdoors, skin cancer rates are on the rise. This year over 75,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer and over 3,900 will have the more aggressive, sometimes fatal form of the disease, malignant melanoma. However, despite the rise in skin cancer rates, the number of bottles of sunscreen sold in Canada has actually decreased in the last ten years.
The sun emits three types of rays. UVC rays are the shortest and most dangerous rays, but generally don’t reach the earth’s surface as they are pretty much absorbed by the atmosphere. UVB rays are mainly absorbed by the ozone layer as well, but about 10% do pass through, and are primarily responsible for burning, tanning, skin aging and skin cancer. UVA rays are the longest and weakest rays, with most reaching the earth’s surface. They are responsible for wrinkles, aging, and skin cancer. (One important note: Tanning beds use UVA rays.)
Often the UV index is given along with the weather. It is a measure of the intensity of the sun’s UV rays on the earth’s surface. The index predicts the maximum value expected for the day and takes into account all factors that affect UV rays, such as the season, latitude, cloud cover and altitude. The scale runs from 0 to 11+; any reading above 3 or in the moderate range requires protection from the sun’s rays. The index will be higher in the late spring, summer and early fall months. Similarly, higher readings will be found on clear days (although rays can penetrate thinner, hazy clouds) and during the middle hours of the day.
UV rays can also be intensified depending on the surface they hit. Concrete patios, asphalt, sand, boat decks and wooden decks all reflect the sun’s rays. This causes an increased amount of UV rays to reach the skin, even when sitting under an umbrella. Water reflects the sun’s rays a little, but many of the rays will actually go right through the water. You can in fact, get a sunburn in the pool!
The Canadian Cancer Society recommends that Canadians use the UV index to help plan daily activities. If the ratings are in the moderate to high range, try to plan outdoor activities for early morning or later in the afternoon. And when it’s time to go out, be sure to apply sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher liberally to all areas of exposed skin at least 30 minutes before venturing out, to allow the sunscreen to penetrate the skin. Wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses to protect the eyes. Children under the age of six months should be kept out of the sun completely. Make sun protection part of your family’s daily routine.
How to read the UV rating
0 to 2: minimal
Most people can stay in the sun for up to one hour during peak hours without burning.
3 to 4: low
Fair-skinned people can burn in less than 20 minutes. Everyone should use sunscreen and wear long sleeves and long pants.
5 to 6: moderate
Light-skinned people can burn in less than 15 minutes; everyone should wear sunscreen and lip balm. Use sunglasses to protect your eyes.
7 to 9: high
Fair-skinned people can burn in less than 10 minutes. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses. Everyone should minimize sun exposure from 10 am to 4 pm. Apply sunscreen often. Wear clothing with tightly-woven fabric, UV rays can pass through the spaces of loosely knit clothes.
10 +: Very High
Fair-skinned people can burn in less than 5 minutes. Apply sunscreen every two hours. Avoid being in the sun as much as possible. Wear a cap or hat with a wide brim. Try not to do outdoor activities.
Lesley Paul is a pharmacist at Stuart Ellis Pharmacy. Listen to 95.1 The PeakFM weekdays at 7:03am and during the noon-hour for more health and wellness tips, or stop in and visit at 169 Hurontario Street in downtown Collingwood.