Caring for your skin in winter

Skin need just as much attention in winter as summer

winter run

Oh, the weather outside is frightful!

With recent, sudden drops in temperature,  unexpectedly early and overabundant snowfall, and approaching holiday madness, many may seek a respite in warmer climates.  But there also those hardy folk who choose to weather the wintry conditions — and even embrace them — enjoying such activities as skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, tubing, hiking, and the like.

For those, and the rest of us who just have to go about our daily grind despite such conditions, there may not be much thought given to protecting one’s skin.  After all, it’s cold and sometimes cloudy.  But don’t be lured into a false sense of security.  It’s important to realize that it’s just as critical to protect your skin in winter as it is in summer.

Sun dangers at high altitudes

For those who head to mountainous areas for skiing and snowboarding, higher altitude and reflection of UV rays off of snow can increase one’s risk for skin cancers.  As altitude increases, oxygen decreases, resulting in less filtering of the UV radiation by the earth’s atmosphere.  Exposure to UV radiation can increase 3-5 percent for every 1,000 feet above sea level.  That can mean 30-50 percent greater intensity of UV radiation at 10,000 feet!  The increased exposure can be even greater in snow, which reflects up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays.  This can result in getting hit twice by the same UV rays.  So the risk for skin cancer can be even greater in these conditions than on a warm beach at sea level.

Sun dangers when it’s cloudy

But what if it’s cloudy?  Unfortunately, even that doesn’t confer much protection.  Up to 80% of the sun’s rays penetrate the clouds.  Moreover, sunscreen can wear off in snow and high winds just as it can when swimming or sweating, reducing its effectiveness.

In honor of the annual Healthy Skin Month, here are some simple, helpful tips and precautions that everyone should take to protect your skin in winter:

  •  Use sunscreen when you spend more than 30 minutes outdoors. 
    Look for sunscreens that are broad-spectrum (covering both UVA and UVA rays), and at least SPF 30 or higher.  Use a product that is water resistant if you will spend a lot of time in the snow and wind or sweating heavily.  Apply the sunscreen at least 30 minutes before exposure to the sun.
  • Reapply every 2 hours, or more frequently after heavy sweating.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally.
    Use 1-2 shot glasses worth of sunscreen every time you apply, depending on your body size.  You should be using at least a teaspoon worth for the face alone.
  • Don’t forget sensitive and more-exposed areas, such as lips, ears, nose, neck, scalp, and hands. 
    There are plenty of options for lip balms with SPF 15.  Protective sunglasses or goggles are also available – choose ones that offer 99 percent or greater UV protection, that have large or wraparound frames.
  • Cover exposed areas when you can.
    Hats, ski masks, scarves, and the like can protect areas on which it is difficult to apply sunscreen or where it wears off easily.
  • When possible, try to limit winter outdoor activities to before 10 AM and after 3 or 4 PM. 
    The sun’s rays are most intense during those times, just as in summer.

Why is it so important to protect your skin from the sun?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the US, with greater than one million Americans diagnosed each year.  The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetimes.  And one person dies of melanoma every hour.  Anyone can get skin cancer, no matter their skin color or ethnicity.  Some people may be at even greater risk than others, such as those with a family history, people who have used indoor tanning beds, folks who have had 3 or more blistering sunburns, or those who live in areas of more intense sunlight.  So it is critical to monitor your skin for changes on a regular basis, and to seek evaluation by a dermatologist promptly when you find something suspicious.

Early detection is critical for skin cancers, but especially for melanoma.  The American Cancer Society has shown that the overall 5-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early, before the tumor has spread to regional lymph nodes or other organs, is about 98 percent in the US. The survival rate falls to 62 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes, and 16 percent when the disease metastasizes to distant organs.  You and your dermatologist can work closely to monitor for new or changing lesions.

For more information on skin self-exams and the changes to watch out for, go to the American Academy of Dermatology website.