By Aaisha Zafar Islam

What's your SPF?

The summer is upon us finally and brings vacations in its wake. We would be planning activities and outings to keep our children busy through these months, but have you considered sun protection as you go about having fun outdoors? 

Why wear sun protection?

You need year round sun protection in our part of the world, even on cloudy days! Skin cancer or melanoma is one of the fastest rising of all cancers in Canada.

Canadian Cancer Society estimates that the number of Canadians diagnosed with skin cancer or melanoma would be around 6500 in 2014 alone, striking more men than women and proving lethal for at least 10% of those diagnosed with it.

Their statistics report for 2014, released last month, urged Canadians to be more fastidious in ensuring that they use proper sun protection.

According to said Dr. Prithwish De, an epidemiologist with the Canadian Cancer Society:

Canadians need to do more to protect themselves from damaging ultraviolet radiation. Skin cancer is a largely preventable disease if Canadians use proper sun protection.

Ultraviolet Rays

Sunlight or sunshine is electro-magnetic radiation from the sun that reaches us through the earth’s atmosphere. Infrared, visible and ultraviolet lights make up sunlight. Of these ultraviolet or UV rays are of particular importance in sun protection discussions.


Ultra Violet A rays make up over 90 percent of the sunlight that reaches us, clouds nor glass can block these rays. It is known to penetrate through dermal layers and cause photo-ageing, wrinkles and more recently, studies have concluded that UVA rays also initiate cancerous growth by mutating the DNA of basal cells under the skin’s surface.


Ultra Violet B rays are heat carriers, though they make up less of the total sunlight reaching us, these rays cause sunburns as well as tans.  UVB rays can’t penetrate skin layers so their effects remain on the surface, however, they do contribute in developing skin cancer.

Those who are more likely to get a sunburn have higher chances of getting skin cancer later in their lives, in fact one single instance of a severe sunburn in childhood doubles the likelihood of developing melanoma as an adult.

Sun Blocks and Screens

There are two basic types of sun protections, sun blocks and sunscreens.

Sun Block

As the name suggests, these are physical active ingredients that ‘block’ the UV rays from causing damage to the skin. These tend to be thicker and need more effort in application, but they are one of the best sun protections available in the market. Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are main ingredients in most sun block lotions.

Sun Screen

Sun screen lotions or sprays have chemicals as active ingredients that ‘screen’ UV rays. Basically they absorb and neutralize the effects of UV rays on the skin. Most SPF lotions will have ingredients like avobenzone, avobenzene, oxymethylcinnemate.

These days most sun screens offer ‘broad spectrum’ protection, including both physical and chemical active agents for minimizing sun damage on the skin.

What is SPF?

Sun Protection Factor is a number reached in a lab-test mimicking the effects of staying out in the sun. An SPF of 15 would mean that it enables a person to stay out fifteen times longer in the sun without getting sunburnt. However this parameter has been called faulty of late as it gives a false sense of security to the wearer. You have to make sure to apply a good layer of such sun protection over the skin, re-apply your sunscreen every two hours, and make sure you cover all exposed areas to actually get the sun protection level any SPF number specifies.

Another thing to keep in mind is that SPF is a standard for protection against UVB rays only. In fact, even a light layer of clothing has an SPF value ranging from 2-7.

PA ratings

There was no standard for protection against UVA rays in the West, however the Japanese have a Protection Grade of UVA (PA) system that has been adopted by their western counterparts as well.

Again, it is determined by an indoor lab test mimicking sunlight and exposure to UVA rays based on how long a subject can stay out safely before he experiences persistent pigment darkening (PPD), or tanning of the skin. The higher this value in a product, the more protection it offers to the wearer.

PA + offers a UVA protection factor between two and four, it increases to between four and eight for PA ++ and goes beyond eight for PA+++ rated sunscreens. To get the most out of this high rating, you have to be diligent in applying it all over exposed skin and reapplying whenever needed.

Everyone needs proper protection when they go out in the sun. Dark complexions have a very slight advantage over the fair-skinned; they are less likely to sunburn, but skin penetrating, cancer causing UVA rays do not discriminate!

Muneezah Jawad, our social media manager is also a soccer coach, she summarizes these misconceptions:

As a soccer coach, I find it very frustrating when parents don’t apply sunscreen on to their children with excuses such as ‘my son does not burn’ or my daughter is dark skinned she does not need sunscreen’.

Parents need to realize that the use of sun protection is imperative regardless of skin colour. It is not about who tans more or burns more. It’s about UVA and UVB rays being harmful to your skin. If you going out in the sun, apply sun screen/ sun block no matter what, even on cloudy days!

When shopping for sun screens, a higher SPF is good, but not always effective. Make sure you look through the ingredients list for physical ‘blocks’ as well as chemical ‘screens’ in addition to the lotion or spray’s PA rating. Best would be to avoid the sun from noon to 4 pm when sun is at its peak, wear a hat, avoid excessive skin exposure, and check with the day’s UV index.

Read through’s list of 10 Fun & Frugal Summer Activities here.

Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation has more tips here.


About the author: 

Aaisha Zafar Islam is the executive editor of and only started paying attention to sun protection after moving to Canada.


This article was inspired by a very informative discussion on our forums here. Do join us and share your views.