When the weather turns cold and that white powdery stuff falls in the local mountains, you head outdoors to play in the snow. You grab your coat and gloves, maybe a hat, but the last thing on your mind is sunscreen, right? Wrong.
Even when it’s cold outside, you still need to protect your skin from the sun. For skiers, snowboarders or other outdoor winter sports enthusiasts, ultraviolet (UV) rays reflected by snow, combined with a higher altitude, increases the risk of sun damage.
“It’s very important not to equate sunburns with hot beach days, and to remember that some of the worst sunburns occur on the ski slopes,” says Dr. Mona Mofid, a board-certified dermatologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “What many people don’t know is that five or more sunburns during your lifetime double your risk of developing skin cancer.”
According to Dr. Mofid, for every 1,000 feet above sea level, UV radiation exposure increases about 4 percent. So at an altitude of 10,000 feet on the ski slopes, UV radiation may reach 40 percent the intensity of that at sea level. In addition, the intensity of the sun reflecting off the snow is about 80 percent, compared to sand which is about 25 percent. It’s this combination that makes the slopes more dangerous to your skin than the beach.
Taking the simple step of applying sunscreen protects your skin and reduces your risk of skin cancer. Dr. Mofid encourages people to wear a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30, and preferably 50 or above. In the winter, she recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 50 or above on the face, especially one with zinc or titanium.
Skin cancer remains the most common cancer in the U.S., and cases continue to grow at an alarming rate. Between 2000 and 2009 alone, rates climbed 1.9 percent each year. The American Academy of Dermatology says that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer, and one out of 50 will be diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
“Protecting your eyes is just as important as protecting your skin,” says Dr. Mofid, adding that eye cataracts are caused by UV light exposure. She recommends wearing sunglasses or goggles that offer 99 percent or more UV protection and that have larger frames with a wraparound to protect your eyes, eyelids and the sides of your face — some of the most common sites for skin cancers.
It’s important to get outside and to be active year-round. Dr. Mofid says to have fun, but don’t forget the sunscreen. She offers these additional tips to stay protected from winter sun:
- Sunscreen comes off easily if you’re sweating or rub your face, so reapply often and liberally.
- Wear UV-protective clothing, including helmets, balaclavas and gloves, to protect your skin from the wind and natural elements, as well as harmful UV rays.
- For lips, wear a moisturizing lip balm with SPF to keep them from drying.
- Make a skin cancer-related checkup and counseling about sun exposure part of your annual health exam. You should also be aware of your skin and contact your doctor about anything new and changing or bleeding spots or moles.