The dangers of sun exposure are slowly but surely entering the public consciousness as we understand more about the effects of UV damage on our skin. The image most of us have of UV damage is that of endless beaching during the summer months.
The only time I get burnt is at the beach in the summer. Can you get sun damage in the winter?
Yes, sun damage can occur at any time. There are two main sources of ultraviolet light that penetrate the atmosphere and reach the surface of the earth: UVA and UVB.
UVB rays are shorter wavelength rays, the type that causes sunburns. When most of us think of sun exposure, these are the rays that we think of. Objects such as clouds or windows block UVB rays. Most UVB rays are blocked by the atmosphere, and only about 5% reach us at ground level. UVB rays, therefore, vary in intensity depending on the time of the day, and on the season. As we are exposed to fewer UVB rays during the winter sunburns, tend to be less frequent during the winter.
UVA rays are longer wave solar rays that can easily penetrate through clouds, windows, and even light clothing. Although these rays do not cause sunburns like UVB rays, they are not blocked by the atmosphere, and thus we are exposed to a uniform amount of UVA rays year-round.
While it’s true that you’re less likely to get sunburns as you are exposed to lower levels of UVB rays in the winter, you are just as vulnerable to UVA exposure.
What is the difference between UVB damage and UVA damage?
UVB rays only reach the upper layers of the skin, but cause inflammation, sunburn, and also stimulate melanocytes, causing the suntan effect. It also causes direct DNA damage, leaving you more prone to certain types of skin cancers.
UVA rays penetrate the deeper layers of the skin. While these rays do not cause sunburns, they are responsible for long-term skin damage, such as wrinkles, loss of elasticity, and premature aging. Rubbery skin that is often seen in the elderly is largely the result of overexposure to UVA light.
What are some common scenarios where UV exposure is a concern during the winter?
UVA exposure is mostly uniform throughout the year, so sun damage from this type of light is constant. Applying sunscreen, staying out of the sun, and wearing proper protective clothing are all important.
Skiing, snowboarding, or for some adventurous people, alpine climbing are some common winter activities in which sun exposure is a more significant concern. While fewer UVB reach the surface during the winter months, sunburns during the winter aren’t uncommon while engaging in any of these activities. There are two factors at work here. First, at a higher elevation, UV radiation is higher. Secondly, the snow reflects UV light very efficiently, so exposed areas like the face can become damaged very quickly. Snow blindness is another concern for skiers or alpine climbers who don’t adequately protect their eyes with goggles. Snow blindness occurs when the eyes are exposed to a large amount of UV light due to the amplified effects of snow reflecting light. Although temporary, the condition is excruciating, and depending on the circumstances, it can be dangerous.
What can I do to protect myself better during my next ski trip?
Apply a healthy amount of sunscreen on the face, as it is typically the only area that is exposed during skiing. Some other tips include wearing goggles, preferably UV protective ones, and re-applying sunscreen after several hours as all sunscreens degrade over time. Remember that UV light is stronger at altitude, and the reflective quality of snow amplifies total exposure, leading to a lot of exposure if you are not prepared.