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Five common sun safety myths

Spending time outdoors and soaking up the sun after a long winter can feel like just what the doctor ordered, but all that sun exposure can lead to sun damage – even if you think you’re protected.

A woman wearing a large floppy sun hat
Harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun damages skin cells, which appears in the form of a tan or sunburn, causing not only wrinkles or dark spots, but also increasing your risk of skin cancer.

Women’s Health Matters spoke with Dr. Christian Murray, Women’s College Hospital dermatologist, about some of the common sun safety myths he hears in his practice as well as the best strategies for sun protection.

Myth #1: Sunscreen will protect me from sun damage

“People think they can stay out in the sun longer if they’re wearing sunscreen, and this is simply not true,” says Dr. Murray.

“I have people coming in every day with tans and they’re saying – I don’t understand it, I wore sunscreen! It’s because sunscreen is not that effective. It’s pretty good, but it’s not a protective shield,” says Dr. Murray. “Use it as your last line of defence, and know that if you go to the beach and stay out in the sun, you will get sun damage, sunburns and you’ll put yourself at risk of skin cancer.”

Myth #2: My tan isn't dangerous

“Tanning puts you at risk of skin cancer – it tells me that you’ve had more sun exposure that you need, which puts you at risk,” says Dr. Murray. “Tanning is a form of slower injury to your skin – it’s a low-level burn and a sign of skin damage.”

Myth #3: I’ve never had a sunburn, so I’m not at risk

“I don’t even ask people anymore if they’ve had burns if I see that they have very fair skin because I know that they’ve had them,” Dr. Murray says. “Any sun exposure as a child, tan included, predisposes you to skin cancer,” he says. If you do know that you’ve had blistering sunburns in the past, that increases your risk even higher.

Myth #4: I need sun for vitamin D and bone health

“The amount of sunlight you need to get adequate vitamin D for your bones is just a few minutes a day on a small part of your forearm,” says Dr. Murray. “Vitamin D deficiency is usually not related to sun exposure.” If your vitamin D levels are low, he recommends speaking with your doctor about supplements.

Myth #5: I don’t need sun protection outside of summer

Although in Canada the highest UV radiation is between April and October, if you’re out on a bright winter day, prolonged sun exposure can cause damage.

“In the spring and fall you’re more likely to get sun damage if you don’t expect it, for example in April, when you’ve planned an outing and it turns out to be an unseasonably hot and sunny day,” Dr. Murray says.

It’s also possible to get a sunburn on a cloudy day, so make sure you plan ahead and protect yourself year-round.

How to protect yourself

“Assess your risk, and once you understand it, put strategies in place to protect yourself as best as you can,” says Dr. Murray. “Your risk is usually related to skin type: the fairer the skin is, the lighter the eyes or hair, the higher the risk of chronic sun damage and skin cancer. If you’re someone with dark skin, you can still get sun damage, sunburns and skin cancer, though the risk is lower.”

Avoid the sun at peak times, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and avoid prolonged sun exposure.

Wear protective clothing. Dr. Murray recommends thicker weave fabrics with long sleeves. Wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat that provides shade, and not for example, a baseball cap where both sides of your face are exposed.

Stay in the shade as much as possible during outdoor activities.

Wear sunscreen in addition to these protective measures, and remember to apply enough and reapply frequently.

Dr. Christian Murray, dermatologist, Women's College Hospital

This information is provided by Women's College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on July, 2020

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