Best Sunscreen: 12 Tips For Safe And Effective Sunscreen Use

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Looking for the best sunscreen? You should be reading labels to avoid so-called toxic ingredients. | Getty

The official start of summer is coming up quickly, and the mercury is rising accordingly. What's also rising is the UV index, which measures the strength of the sun's rays. We know you're excited to enjoy the summer sunshine, but with skin cancer rates rising—including among young Canadians—it's important to do it right.

One in six people born in the 1990s will get skin cancer, according to the Canadian Dermatology Association, compared to one in 20 for those born in the '60s. Maybe your parents spent their youths baking in the sun, covering in baby oil to speed up that tan, but you can't play by the same rules. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are not generally fatal, though they can be disfiguring. Meanwhile, 5,000 Canadians each year are diagnosed with malignant melanoma, a cancer that can spread quickly and can be fatal. Being sun smart isn't just about avoiding those aging wrinkles and sun spots (though it helps with that too)—it can also save your life.

Luckily, you still want to enjoy the sunshine while protecting your skin. Read on for our dozen tips on safe and effective sunscreen use.

Sunscreen Tips And Dangers
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Stay Away From Vitamin A: Vitamin A is essential in your diet, but you should keep it out of your sunscreen, says Maggie MacDonald, toxics manager at Environmental Defence. "Even though it's good to eat," MacDonald said, "when you put it on your skin there is evidence that it might increase your skin cancer risk." Also watch for retinol, a form of vitamin A that's often found in anti-aging products. "Definitely avoid those products in your sunblocks," she said. After all, the best anti-aging cream is sunscreen!

Don't Be Overconfident In A High SPF: It makes sense that a product with an SPF like 60 or 75 would be a smarter choice than one that's rated just SPF 30, but that's not necessarily the case. The Canadian Dermatology Association says to go with a sunscreen that's at least SPF 30, but Health Canada says that while SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays, SPF 30 only provides an extra four percent protection—the difference isn't as huge as you'd think, so don't be overconfident in your number.

Avoid The "Toxic 10": Environmental Defence has a list of the 10 ingredients in skin care that it recommends avoiding—you can access it at Just Beautiful, but it includes common ingredients like parabens. To make your job easier, look at the list of cosmetics that have taken the Just Beautiful pledge. Companies offering sun care products, including Canadian-made Green Beaver, are included on the list.

Say No To Oxybenzone: This common sunblock ingredient is a concern because it's an endocrine disrupter, which means it mimicks human hormones. "We recommend that people avoid endocrine disruptors in general," MacDonald says. The concern is that these chemicals can interfere with our own hormones, like estrogen. A report published earlier this year by the UN Environment Program and the World Health Organization raised the concern that hormone-related cancers like testicular and thyroid cancer are rising, and the increase cannot only be explained by genetic factors—that means something environmental is at play. Some are concerned that endocrine disrupters are one of those factors. "It underlines the need for concern where these chemicals are applied," MacDonald said.

Think Zinc: Look for sunscreens that contain physical sun blockers—in particular zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These ingredients are safe and create a physical barrier between your skin and the sun's harmful rays. It's what gives sunscreen that whitish appearance, but it's still better than that a red burn! Look for micronized titanium dioxide for a non-chalky look, though it's more expensive.

Fragrance? Go Without It: The ingredients for fragrances don't have to be listed on the label of cosmetic or skin-care products—it's considered a trade secret. The problem is that many fragrances contain phthalates, a class of chemicals which the World Health Organization says may contain carcinogens. It can be hard to find unfragranced sunscreens, but MacDonald suggests looking for those intended for babies or children, which are more likely to not have fragrance added.

Don't Just Focus On Sunscreen: Sunscreen is great, but it's not the only way to protect your skin, MacDonald says. You're more likely to avoid burns and skin damage if you focus on overall sun safety. Try to stay out of the sun during the peak hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., stay in the shade when you can, and focus on what you're wearing as well. "Don't be shy to wear a hat or long sleeved clothes if you're concerned," she said. And don't forget to protect your eyes with sunglasses that block UV rays.

Waterproof Isn't Foolproof: Waterproof sunscreen can help you stay protected when you're enjoying the surf, but it doesn't last forever, and always needs to be reapplied when you get back on dry land. And remember, sweat counts as water too—another reason to reapply your sunscreen throughout the day.

Pay Special Attention For Babies And Children: Young skin is sensitive skin, and you have to be careful to protect it well. You can use sunscreens at six months of age and beyond—before then, keep babies out of the sun—but look for something specially formulated for babies. And employ other methods of sun protection, including hats with wide brims and swimmings suits that block UV rays. In infants younger than a year, a sunburn is always considered a medical emergency that requires medical attention. Also watch for dehydration, which is a side effect of sunburn.

As well, it's believed that infants are particularly sensitive to endocrine disruptors because they're growing quickly and their endocrine systems are still developing—one more good reason to avoid those ingredients.

Don't Skimp On Your Sunscreen: Many people start off on the wrong foot because they just don't put enough sunscreen on to begin with. Adults should apply 30 milliliters (two tablespoons) of sunscreen to cover their entire body.

Look For Broad spectrum Protection: There are three types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC rays don't reach the Earth's surface, so those have nothing to do with the kind of sunscreen you'll buy. The SPF rating tells you the sunscreen's protection against UVB rays, which cause skin cancer and cataracts over the long term. There's no rating system for protection from UVA rays, however, though Health Canada recommends getting a broad spectrum sunscreen in order to protect against both types of rays. This includes sunscreens with physical blockers like zinc oxide.

Check For Official Approval: In Canada, all sunscreens are regulated as drugs and have to meet certain criteria to be sold. Look for a Drug Identification Number (DIN) or Natural Health Product Number (NHPN) on the bottle to find a sunscreen approved by Health Canada, and for the CDA logo to find one that meets the guidelines of the Canadian Dermatology Association.

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