Your Guide to Sun Protection 

Ultraviolet Radiation

Ultraviolet radiation from our sun is the primary source of light, warmth, and vitamin D on Earth, making the sun a necessary and beneficial part of our lives. At the same time, we must be mindful of spending prolonged periods in the sun, because extensive exposure to UVA and UVB rays—the UV radiation that passes through our depleted ozone layer—has been linked to health problems and issues such as:

  • Painful sunburns
  • Certain kinds of skin cancer such as melanoma
  • Premature aging, including the development of wrinkles and freckles
  • Damage to the eyes and eyesight
  • Suppression of the body’s proper immune function

There is also evidence to suggest that there is a link between childhood sunburns and the risk of developing skin cancer later in life: the more frequent and severe the sunburns received as a child, the higher the chances a person has of developing certain types of skin cancer as an adult. It is of the utmost importance, therefore, to ensure that children and teenagers especially are properly and thoroughly protected when out in the sun. And always remember that it does not have to be bright, sunny, or summertime in order for UV rays to do damage. Ultraviolet radiation easily penetrates through cloud cover, and even if you cannot see the sun or feel its warmth, your skin is still being exposed to its UVA and UVB rays. Similarly, outdoor winter activities also require sun-protection, because UV radiation is just as powerful in the winter as it is in summer, and can reflect off snow, water, sand, and even concrete.

UPF and SPF: Understanding Sun Protection Ratings

There are many products on the market designed as protective sunwear for the entire body, including things like sunblock and sunscreen, eyewear, hats and headwear, and sun-protective clothing. Some of these items have standardized methods of assessing their protection values—such as SPF ratings for sunscreens and UPF ratings for protective clothing—which help consumers to evaluate the amount of UVA and UVB protection the clothes or sunscreens will provide.

Sunblocks and sunscreens have an SPF rating, which stands for sun protection factor. The SPF represents how much longer you can spend exposed to the sun when protected by sunscreen versus the amount of time when unprotected. If a sunscreen has an SPF 40, for example, then you can safely spend 40 times longer in the sun than you could if you did not wear sunblock.

Materials and textiles are given a UPF rating, which is the ultraviolet protection factor. This rating measures the amount of ultraviolet rays that are absorbed and reflected by a fabric. A UPF rating of 40, for instance, means that the clothing will only allow 1/40th of the UV radiation to pass through the fabric to your skin.

In the end, the most important task is to ensure that all body parts are protected from UV radiation by some form of sun-protective gear when you and your family are enjoying time in the sun.

Sun Safety Tips for the Whole Family

There are several simple measures you can take to ensure your family’s sun safety. The first of these safety tips is also the simplest: avoid sun exposure! Especially during the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. when the rays from the sun are the strongest, stay out of the sun as much as possible. Babies under the age of one year should be kept out of direct sunlight entirely, and young children should not be allowed to play in direct sunlight for extended periods, even if they are properly covered. If you find that being outside is necessary, seek out shaded areas under trees or umbrellas, and cover exposed skin with sun-protection products like:

  • A wide-brimmed sun hat to shield the face
  • Sunglasses that block against UVA and UVB
  • Sun-protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts, full pants, and gloves
  • Broad spectrum sunscreen (which protects from both UVA and UVB), with all instructions about proper application and re-application followed carefully
  • Sunblock or protective balms for areas like the nose, lips, and ears

It is also advisable to check the UV index—a standard measurement of the intensity of UV radiation—before going out into the sun. A UV index between 0 and 2 is low and does not necessarily require protection. However, an index of 3 to 7 does require protection, and a UV index higher than 8 requires the most sun protection possible.

On top of knowing how to keep yourself and your family safe from the sun, there are also certain factors that can cause photosensitivity and make a person more susceptible to UV rays. These factors include:

  • Medical conditions like lupus and Porphyria
  • Medications like certain antibiotics or blood pressure and heart medications
  • Hereditary or other risk factors such as complexion and hair colour

More information about these issues can be found on Health Canada’s sun safety website.