The Cover Up: An Update on Skin Cancer and How to Reduce Your Risk

Sun Protection

Health Canada reports that skin cancer rates have been increasing consistently for the past 30 years. So what are we doing wrong? Photo: Diane Villadsen/Stocksy

“Please wear sunscreen. It’s just not worth it, no matter how much you want to tan,” said Hugh Jackman, sporting a bandage on his nose, on Instagram this past April. After going for a biopsy, which would come back negative for basal cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer Jackman was first diagnosed with in 2013, the 54-year-old actor posted the message — one it would seem we haven’t fully gotten. 

Health Canada reports that skin cancer rates have been increasing consistently for the past 30 years. And a study released last year by McGill University suggested that incidence of melanoma, which causes more deaths than any other skin cancer, rose 48 per cent between 1992 and 2017.

“I think the general public is more aware of the risk of skin cancer due to UV [ultraviolet] radiation from excessive sun exposure and tanning beds — but, ultimately, skin cancer rates are still rising,” says Dr. Sunil Kalia, a dermatologist with Vancouver’s Centre for Clinical Epidemiology & Evaluation and associate professor at the Department of Dermatology and Skin Science at the University of British Columbia.

So, what are we doing wrong? Jackman’s video appeal, in which he went on to say, “Put some sunscreen on. You’ll still have an incredible time out there,” could offer a clue.

“We don’t want people thinking, ‘Oh, now that I have on my sunscreen, I can go spend as much time as I want out in the sun,’” says Kalia. “If you keep acquiring sun exposure, you’re putting yourself at higher risk of developing skin cancer.” Which means you can’t fall back on the excuse that the damage has already been done — each time you go out in the sun unprotected, you are putting yourself more at risk for developing skin cancer.

Rather than relying on sunscreen alone, at the top of the doctor’s orders is a form of protection most of us aren’t very enthusiastic about: abstinence. “It’s important to be more strict with that rule when the UV index is higher than three. So, avoid sun exposure in those peak hours, around 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” he advises.

We know abstinence is hard to achieve and doesn’t sound all that fun — so a more practical approach is when you’re outside, cover up. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect the ears, neck and face — golfers are better off swapping the baseball cap or visor for something akin to Greg Norman’s signature straw gambler. And wear long-sleeved clothing; it doesn’t have to be UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rated. If the fabric you’re wearing blocks the light and creates a shadow when held up to the sun, that’s good protection, says Kalia. Seek shade structures “whenever possible.” And check that sunglasses or transition-style glasses have a UV 400 rating.

Finally, we get to sunscreen. People generally apply half to a quarter the amount they need, notes Kalia, and therefore get half to a quarter the SPF. “That’s why we do recommend a higher SPF, at least 45, because people are applying less.”

To get enough, follow the rule of teaspoons: one for the face, head and neck, one for each arm, the front torso, back torso, and two for each leg, for a total of nine teaspoons (45 ml) of sunscreen. “For the full body, you could go through a bottle in a day,” he says, “if you’re reapplying the amount that you are supposed to.” Generally, that’s every two hours, unless you’re inside and not near a window, for which one application should do. Glass filters UVB rays, which play the greatest role in causing skin cancer, but not UVA rays, those responsible for tanning and aging the skin. So, reapply if, say, you’re on a long drive or your desk is near a window.

As for sunscreen sprays, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends doing four passes back and forth in each area of application, for about six seconds in each area. 

It’s never too late to start practising safe sun. “My clinic is filled with snowbirds. So, it’s probably that extra winter sun exposure that puts them at risk,” says Kalia. “Even patients who develop their first skin cancer at 75 or older, I tell them to start wearing a hat and following sun protection behaviour.”  


New Kids on the Sunblock


La Roche-Posay Anthelios Age Correct SPF 50

La Roche-Posay is loved by dermatologists for use on sensitive skin, as it’s non-comedogenic and hypoallergenic. It has now expanded its sunscreen line to include this daily face lotion that not only has the essential broad spectrum protection but also includes sun damage-correcting ingredients such as phe-resorcinol, to reduce hyperpigmentation; niacinamide, to brighten dark spots; and lipohydroxy acid, to improve skin texture.


Supergoop! (Re)setting 100% Mineral Powder SPF 35

The queen of unseen sunscreen, Texan Holly Thaggard, created cult brand Supergoop! to get away from gloopy, sticky sunblock and make wearing daily SPF enjoyable. With this mission in mind, her company has created myriad, easy-to-wear formulations, including this handy translucent powder brush – the perfect solution to reapplying sunblock throughout the day, without messing up your makeup. Easy to pop in your purse, the powder formula provides broad spectrum protection using mineral zinc oxide, as well as hides pores and stops shine.


Coola classic Body organic Sunscreen Spray SPF 50

The ease of a spray is hard to equal. This one from Coola uses what the company calls its Farm to Face plant-protection formula, featuring damage-defending omega-3 fatty acids from raspberry seed oil, hydrating and healing properties from prickly pear extract and antioxidant-fuelled protection from buriti fruit oil, for ultra-sheer, fragrance-free, water-resistant, broad-spectrum defence. 


A version this article appeared in the June/July 2023 issue with the headline ‘The Cover Up’, p. 28.