Being in the sun too long can cause sunburns and skin cancer. It is important to wear sunscreen and take other sun safety steps to protect yourself from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation (UV rays).

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Sunscreen safety tips

  • Choose a high SPF. Protect your health by using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30. The sunscreen should also say "broad-spectrum" on the label, to screen out most of the UVA and UVB rays.
  • Look for "water resistant". Look for claims on the label that the product stays on better in water (water resistant, very water resistant).
  • Read application instructions. For best results, be sure to follow the instructions on the product label.
  • Use lots of sunscreen. Use the recommended amount of sunscreen.
  • Apply it often. Apply sunscreen  before heading outside and use a generous amount. Reapply 20 minutes after going outside and at least every 2 hours after that. Cover exposed areas generously, including ears, nose, the tops of feet and backs of knees. Reapply sunscreen often to get the best possible protection especially if you are swimming or sweating heavily.
  • Protect yourself. Sunscreen and insect repellents can be used safely together. Apply the sunscreen first, then the insect repellent.
  • Sunscreens and babies. Do not put sunscreen on babies less than 6 months of age. Keep them out of the sun and heat as their skin and bodies are much more sensitive than an adult's.
  • Test for an allergic reaction. Before using any product on you or your child check for an allergic reaction, especially if you have sensitive skin. Apply it to a small patch of skin on the inner forearm for several days in a row. If the skin turns red or otherwise reacts, change products.

How sunscreens protect your health

Did you know?

Sunscreens are not meant to increase the amount of time you spend in the sun. They are meant to increase your protection when you have to be outside.

Exposure to UV rays, mainly UVB, can cause sunburns and may eventually cause skin cancer. While sunscreens can help reduce sunburn, they are not as effective against the other harmful effects of UV rays, like premature aging of the skin and weakening of the immune system.

All sunscreens have a sun protection factor (SPF) on their labels. The SPF tells you the length of time that your sunscreen-protected skin can be exposed to UVB rays before it starts to get red, compared to the length of time it takes on your unprotected skin. In other words, it tells you how much longer you can be exposed to the sun before getting a sunburn.

The amount of time it takes for unprotected skin to burn depends on skin type. In general, fair skin burns more quickly than darker skin.

If you have the type of skin that would burn after 20 minutes in the sun without protection, then properly applying sunscreen with SPF 30 would allow you to spend up to 600 minutes (30 times longer) in the sun without getting a sunburn. However, this does not mean that your skin is protected from all UV effects. Damage to your skin, other than sunburning, may have already started.

The SPF varies depending on the nature of the sunblocking ingredients in the product. Since the SPF refers only to protection against UVB, it is important to choose a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen that also protects you from UVA radiation.

Types of sunscreen

There are many different brands of sunscreen available. They are classified according to their active ingredients. Some products contain chemical filters, some contain physical filters, and some contain both.

  • Chemical filters absorb some of the UVA and UVB radiation and convert it into heat. There are more chemical filters that absorb UVB rays than absorb UVA rays.
  • Physical filters are small particles (usually zinc oxide or titanium dioxide) that scatter and reflect both UVB and UVA radiation.

How the Government of Canada protects you

Health Canada regulates the safety, effectiveness, and quality of sunscreens in Canada. Sunscreen products are classified as drugs and must meet the requirements in Canada's Food and Drugs Act before they may be imported, advertised, or sold in this country.

Also, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) monitors cancer in Canada. PHAC identifies trends and risk factors for cancer, develops programs to reduce cancer risks, and researches to evaluate risks from the environment and human behaviours. Health Canada also promotes public awareness about sun safety and the harmful effects of UV rays.

Report a problem or side effect

Report side effects (adverse reactions) to sunscreens (which are considered drugs) to Health Canada toll-free at 1-866-234-2345 or report online. Please give us as much detail about your medical history and problem as possible.

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