WEB EXTRA: A revealing look at the myths and realities of sun tanning


This is a longer version of an article published as part of Exposed!, a collection of articles about everything under the sun, which was printed in the Summer 2015 print edition of Ottawa Magazine.

Photo: Andrea Tomkins

We were one of the lucky ones who got a break during the Winter That Never Ended with an escape to the Dominican Republic.

It gave me a lot of time to reflect and people watch, because as we all know, there’s no hiding stuff on the beach.

Our beach chairs (under the cover of an umbrella of course) yielded front row seats to an endless parade of tattoos, piercings, scars, and all of the muscular and/or jiggly bits — plus a pantone swatch of skin tones and degrees of burns: creamy-skinned red heads and grizzled brown leathery types and every shade of pink, red, and brown between.

I had assumed hardcore tanning had fallen out of favour, but given the proliferation of sun worshippers in Punta Cana it was clear it still had its fans.

During our holiday, my personal sun-related philosophies could be boiled down to two things: play in the sun/rest in the shade, and wear sunscreen over all exposed skin at all times. I knew this from experience. We did this trip five years ago, when our children were young enough to be told what to do. In the morning we’d strip them down and slather their entire naked little bodies with SPF 60 from head to toe to ensure total and even coverage. After that we’d put on their bathing suits, sun hats and sun shirts.

Unfortunately, certain members of my family are still clinging on to some old school thinking about sun tanning, so I asked Dr. Jim Walker, Dermatologist and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, to help dispel those myths and give this mama some back up.

Dr. Jim Walker, Dermatologist and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Ottawa

Is it true that a tan is fine as long as you don’t burn?
No. A burn is more damaging than a tan without burn, but the slow tan still increases long-term sun damage and increases the risk of future skin cancers.

Do people really need the higher sunscreens?
Sun protection is multifaceted, starting with behavioral choices regarding exposure, shade, clothing and brimmed hats, and then sunscreens for those areas that are exposed after the above considerations are met.

Is SPF 60 overkill?
Unfortunately, no one can apply enough sunscreen to achieve the SPF displayed on the product. In actuality, you are probably getting an effective SPF of 20 to 30 from a product claiming 60. So for a fair-skinned person, the high SPF is better. SPF only measures the height of the protection in the ultraviolet B (UVB) range. It is important to have broad-spectrum protection from the longer wave of UVA as well.

Should we trust the instructions on the back of the bottle in terms of amount to use and frequency of application recommended by the manufacturer?
Along with the highest SPF possible, which includes broad-spectrum protection from UVA, most modern sunscreens are relatively durable, but if you are swimming or sweating hard, reapplication is important.

Do you have any helpful tips for parents with active outdoor children?
Teach them the methods of sun protection and the danger of solar excess, particularly sunburns. This is especially important for the more fair skinned children.

Can you comment on the chemical content of some sunscreens? Can these ingredients be harmful?
This is a bit like the vaccination turmoil in the media. The danger of sunburn — especially repeated sunburns — far outweighs the minimal potential danger of applying the chemicals and tiny mineral particles in sunscreens to our skin.

In terms of treatment, will an aloe plant really help heal a sunburn?
Probably not. Once the burn has occurred, the cat is out of the bag. The DNA has been damaged, and I am not aware of any cream that will reverse this damage. Pain relief and protection from further burn should be the main goal of treating a sunburn.

What kind of sun care regimen do you recommend for the average office worker? I’ve seen recommendations that everyone should wear sunscreen every day, no matter if they’re going to the beach or to the grocery store.
I’ve seen recommendations that everyone should wear sunscreen every day, no matter whether they’re going to the beach or to the grocery store. In Ottawa, that may be excessive in the autumn and winter to apply sunscreen for a short outdoor exposure, but sun damage is a continuous process. There are four major factors that cause skin aging: sun damage, tobacco exposure, time, and genetics. We cannot stop the clock, nor can we choose our parents, but we can control sun and tobacco exposure.