On this page:
- Top sunscreen safety tips
- Proper application of sunscreens
- Use of sunscreens on sensitive skin
- How to store sunscreens
- Understanding sunscreen labels
- Types of sunscreens
- Sunscreen adverse reactions/side effects
- Related resources
Being in the sun too long can cause sunburns and skin cancer. It is important to take steps, including the use of sunscreen, to protect yourself and your family from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation (UV rays).
Top sunscreen safety tips
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- Follow all the instructions on your sunscreen label.
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
- Apply sunscreen generously and evenly, at least 15 minutes before you go out in the sun and reapply at least every 2 hours during exposure. You may need to reapply it more often if you are sweating, swimming, or towelling off.
- Protect your lips too. Use lip balms with SPF.
- Look for "water resistant" or "sport" on the sunscreen label. "Water resistant" or "sport" sunscreens formulated to stay on better if you are in the water or sweating. These sunscreen products still need to be reapplied after you get out of the water or after sweating heavily.
- Sunscreen and insect repellents can be used safely together. Apply the sunscreen first, then the insect repellent.
- Keep babies out of the sun and heat as much as possible. They are much more sensitive to the sun than adults. If you're' outside, keep your baby in the shade whenever possible. Have them wear wide-brimmed sun hats, and light, loose-fitting clothing that covers their skin. Ask your health care provider about using sunscreens on babies who are under 6 months old.
The sun's UV rays are strongest between 11 am and 3 pm.
Protect your skin even on cloudy days and in the winter, since snow is also a strong reflector of UV rays.
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Proper application of sunscreens
Sunscreen should be applied at least 15 minutes before going outside and at least every 2 hours while you are outside. Apply it generously to any areas that are not covered by clothing, a hat, or sunglasses. Don't forget your ears, the backs of your hands, and your scalp, if you have very short hair or are bald.
To get the full benefit from your sunscreen, it is important to use the recommended amount. For example, an adult should use about 7 teaspoons (35mL) of sunscreen to cover all areas of exposed skin.
- 1 teaspoon for each arm
- 1 teaspoon for each leg
- 1 teaspoon for your front
- 1 teaspoon for your back and
- 1 teaspoon for your face and neck
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Use of sunscreens on sensitive skin
Before using a new sunscreen, test the product on a small area of skin on the inner forearm. You should do this especially if you or your family members have sensitive skin. Check for a reaction after 48 hours.
If the skin develops a rash, becomes itchy or reacts in another way, try a different type or brand of sunscreen. Speak to your health care provider if you:
- are unsure about which product is right for you or
- have questions or concerns about a skin reaction to sunscreen
How to store sunscreens
Avoid leaving your sunscreen in direct sunlight or storing it in places that can reach high temperatures, like in a hot car. Exposure to extreme heat can cause sunscreens to be less effective.
Understanding sunscreen labels
Broad-spectrum sunscreens offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays. UVB is the main cause of sunburn and both UVA and UVB can increase your risk of skin cancer.
Sun protection factor (SPF)
All sunscreens have an SPF on their labels. The SPF is a relative measure of how long it will take for unprotected skin to burn in the sun compared to how long it will take if the recommended amount of sunscreen is used. However, using a sunscreen with SPF 30 does not mean you can spend 30 times longer in the sun. A number of other factors can affect the protection level of sunscreens. Some of these factors include:
- how active you are (for example, how much you sweat or swim)
- how strong the UV rays are on a particular day and location
- if you're taking certain medications or have certain health conditions
- skin type: in general, lighter skin is more sensitive to UV rays than darker skin
- how much and how often sunscreen is applied to your skin (applying less than the recommended amount of sunscreen greatly reduces the amount of protection it provides)
Sunscreens are not meant to increase the amount of time you can spend in the sun without burning. They are meant to provide protection while you are exposed to the sun's UV rays.
- Expiry date
All sunscreens have expiry dates. Check to make sure your product isn't expired, as an expired sunscreen may be less effective.
Types of sunscreens
There are many different brands of sunscreens available in Canada. All sunscreens contain active ingredients that can protect you from UV rays. These may contain chemical UV filters, physical UV filters, or both.
Chemical UV filters
Chemical UV filters work by absorbing UV radiation and converting it into a small amount of heat. Examples of chemical UV filters include avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, octisalate, octinoxate and oxybenzone. These are classified by Health Canada as drug ingredients. Products containing one or more of these UV filters will have an 8-digit drug identification number (DIN) on the label.
Physical UV filters
Physical UV filters are mineral compounds that are believed to work by scattering and reflecting UV radiation. Examples of physical UV filters include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are classified by Health Canada as natural ingredients. Products containing only this type of UV filter will have an 8-digit natural product number (NPN) on the label.
If your sunscreen contains both chemical and physical filters, it will have an 8-digit drug identification number (DIN) on the label.
Sunscreen adverse reactions/side effects
Side effects to sunscreens are rare. They can occur in certain individuals as a result of a sensitivity or allergy to one or more ingredients in a sunscreen product, such as:
- UV filters
Speak to a health care provider if you :
- are concerned about an adverse reaction to a sunscreen product or
- need help choosing a product that is right for you
Check sunscreen labels. If you are sensitive or allergic to certain ingredients, check with a health care provider before using the sunscreen.
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Safety of sunscreens
In Canada, sunscreens are classified as non-prescription drugs or natural health products, depending on their active ingredients. They are regulated under the Food and Drugs Act and its Regulations.
All sunscreens approved for sale in Canada must have a Drug Identification Number (DIN) or Natural Product Number (NPN).
Recent studies by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) looked at the possible absorption of certain sunscreen ingredients through the skin. Many of these ingredients are also found in sunscreens available in Canada. The studies measured the concentration levels of common sunscreen ingredients in the blood of people who applied large quantities of sunscreen.
The studies demonstrate that more information is needed to determine if the ingredients in sunscreens pose a safety risk when absorbed. However, at this time, the FDA states:
- sunscreen absorption doesn't equal risk
- the findings don't mean that any of the ingredients are unsafe for use
- people shouldn't stop using sunscreen
Health Canada has reviewed these findings and agrees with the FDA.
Sunscreens provide significant health benefits. For example, they:
- protect people from sunburn
- help to prevent skin cancer
- protect against premature aging
We recommend that Canadians continue to protect themselves and their families from the sun's UV rays by:
- using sunscreens and
- wearing protective clothing
We will continue to work closely with international partners, including the FDA, to review any new studies on the safety of sunscreens. If any sunscreen product sold in Canada poses a safety concern, we will take appropriate action and inform Canadians.
- Sun safety
- Tanning products
- Ultraviolet radiation
- What is ultraviolet radiation?
- The ultraviolet index and sun safety
- Health effects of ultraviolet radiation
- Canadian Pediatric Society – sun safety
- Canadian Cancer Society – sunscreen safety 101
- Canadian Dermatology Association – sunscreen safety
- 2018 report on compliance monitoring – sunscreen testing
- Summary Safety Review – sunscreen products (chemical action sunscreens)
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