We usually relate sunburns to sunny days at the beach and warm tropical vacations. It’s not uncommon to see new winter adventurers shocked at the sight of their sun-scorched face after their trip. After all, isn’t the sun strongest during the summer months? We’re here to dispel the myths about winter and UV exposure.
Today, most people understand that there are two spectrums of light that damage our skin: UVA and UVB. Unfortunately, people tend to overemphasize the immediate and visible symptoms over the long-term damage.
- UVA light is not blocked by cloud cover and is relatively constant year-round
- UVB light is strongest in the summer and is diminished by clouds and windows
UVA is the spectrum of light that primarily causes premature aging. UVB is the spectrum of light that causes sunburns. In dermatology, we say, “UVA for aging; UVB for burning.” Both UVA and UVB increase the risk of developing skin cancer. While it’s true that people are sunburnt much less often during the winter months, it doesn’t mean that there is no need for sun protection during the colder months. UVA is present all year. UVB is significantly reduced in the winter but still present, and if you aren’t careful, you can still get burnt in the winter.
Sun Care Tips for A Winter Adventure
The move from a summer hike to a winter one is considered a giant leap. Whether it’s a backcountry hike, a ski trip, or snowshoeing, a winter adventure is far more perilous than the same trip in the summer. Winter trips require more preparation, experience, and specialized equipment. With so many things to worry about, is sun damage a priority?
Several factors make UV damage during winter dangerous.
- UV strength increases with altitude
- Snow reflects and amplifies light
- UVA is unaffected by cloud cover
- People rarely use sunscreen during the winter
Most winter trips involve altitude and snow, which amplifies UV light and increases your exposure. Snow reflects 80% of UV light, meaning that your skin is exposed to direct exposure and the reflected light. Like swimming, where the water reflects sunlight and amplifies the damage, snow also increases UV damage. Elevation gain is another factor that amplifies UV light. For every 1000 feet of elevation gain, UV exposure increases by 10%. For those who plan to climb mountains, UV exposure is a real threat. At high altitudes, sunburns on the face are very common (the other areas are usually covered by clothing). Sunlight can also cause snow blindness, a temporary but acute and severely painful condition.
Here’s what you need to prepare for a winter adventure:
- Bring sunscreen, always. While thick jackets cover most of your body, your face is still exposed needs to be protected. A sunscreen stick can be a convenient alternative for packing light.
- Remember to reapply sunscreen.
- If you expect to climb high altitudes, bring appropriate wraparound goggles that block UV rays.
- Don’t forget to apply sunscreen on commonly overlooked skin such as lips.
- Don’t forget the non-adventurous winter days where you go to work and go home. UVA rays are still hitting your skin, and it’s best to be protected with a broad-spectrum sunscreen.