The rays you don’t want to catch
By Susanne Martin
Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Or is it?
Traditionally associated with long hours of outdoor fun, summer is not entirely a carefree season. After all, the sun’s rays that warm and delight us also hold a hidden menace, namely ultraviolet (UV) A and B radiation. We should be aware of those rays – and the need to guard against them – not only during bright summer days but year-round. And although we may think that our sunscreen offers adequate protection, it’s important to know that not all sunscreens block the full spectrum of both UVA and UVB rays.
“Sunshine is good for us – it offers a welcome dose of Vitamin D,” says Mariusz Sapijaszko, vice president of the Canadian Dermatology Association and medical director of the Western Canada Dermatology Institute and Youthful Image Clinic. “But excessive sun exposure has been shown to increase the risk of a variety of skin cancers, with some of them being quite deadly.”
Dr. Sapijaszko explains that cells can be damaged when ultraviolet light strikes our skin. The cumulative effects of sun exposure contribute to skin aging – which includes skin thinning and fragility, dark spots, sagging or wrinkles – and can also disturb the functioning of our DNA, resulting in abnormal cell function and cancer.
“Both UVA and UVB have been implicated in increasing the risk of skin cancer, so both are important to keep in mind when choosing sun protection,” Dr. Sapijaszko says, adding that dermatologists recommend a multi-faceted approach that includes seeking shade (especially during peak sun hours), wearing protective clothing, a hat and sunglasses, and applying sunscreen (www.dermatology.ca/programs-resources/resources/sun-safety).
Although it sounds straightforward enough, it’s important to keep in mind that different wavelengths of light have different impacts and require different protective measures. UVB rays – ultraviolet sun radiation in the spectrum of 290 to 320 nanometers (nm) and also referred to as short-wave rays – are the principal cause of sunburns. UVA rays – also known as long-wave rays – cover a spectrum of 320 to 400 nm and are known to cause skin damage.
Dr. Sapijaszko notes that UVA rays are present throughout the day and all year round. These rays reach your skin even when you are in the shade and behind glass, and they can be reflected from a variety of surfaces.
What’s more, until recently it hasn’t been easy for consumers to identify products that provide an adequate level of UVA protection.
Most people choose a sunscreen based on its Sun Protection Factor (SPF), says Kateline Turgeon, director of national training at La Roche-Posay and Vichy. “They look at zillions of products and think, ‘I want to be well protected.’ So they buy a sunscreen with an SPF of 45 or 60. Their second criteria is usually the price because they believe that all products with same SPF offer the same protection, which unfortunately isn’t the case.”
A product’s SPF measures only its protection against UVB rays; it doesn’t take UVA radiation into account.
Dr. Sapijaszko says UVA radiation penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB rays and consequently affects a variety of different skin components, not just those on the surface. Although dermatologists have long recommended broad-spectrum sunscreens, their message has been muted largely due to a lack of consumer awareness about the importance of UVA protection.
A new sunscreen monograph introduced earlier this year by Health Canada that sets minimum requirements for UVA protection is a welcome development, says Ms. Turgeon. The monograph specifies that all broad-spectrum sunscreens must contain both a known UVA and UVB absorber, have a minimum SPF of 15 and a critical wavelength protection of at least 370 nm. It also defines a one-to-three ratio of UVA to UVB protection levels in order for sunscreens to qualify for a UVA logo.
“The new logo will indicate that a product offers the required UVA protection Health Canada is looking for,” Ms. Turgeon explains. These measures will come into full effect in 2015, giving the industry a few months to review formulas and submit their products to Health Canada for evaluation, she adds. “If companies don’t meet those standards, they will have to reformulate their products to be able to claim UVA protection on the package.”
Ms. Turgeon says the shift has been easy for La Roche-Posay. “Our products already have a high level of UVA protection and were among the first few to get the new logo – we were able to submit the material proving the UVA protection to Health Canada very quickly.”
She adds that the company has long been “militant about protection against UVA rays,” which make up about 95 per cent of all the UV radiation reaching our skin. La Roche-Posay is also putting its weight behind consumer awareness initiatives. The brand recently launched behindthespf.ca, an interactive website that educates consumers about UVA and UVB risks and describes what consumers need to look for in a sunscreen.
Dr. Sapijaszko notes that there is another good reason to choose a sunscreen with the new UVA logo. “With a sunscreen that only covers UVB rays, you may think you are getting enough protection and you’ll stay outside longer,” he says. To him, this is an example where partial protection may lead to greater UVA exposure and therefore cause more damage.
Sunscreen, Dr. Sapijaszko believes, works best if it’s used as a supplement to common sense. Choosing the right product and using it properly is one aspect of sun protection, along with other preventative measures. “It’s about a balance,” he advises. “We don’t want people to hide inside. Applying a product that offers proper full-spectrum protection is a good way to safely enjoy the outdoors.”