My family devotes a lot of time to skiing. My husband used to be the U.S. Ski Team’s head aerial coach and I’ve been spending winters on the slopes since I was a teenager. Now we have the joy of introducing our kids to the sport. One of the things I’ve learned through both personal experience and my medical training is that it’s important to be vigilant about sun protection when you’re outside during the winter.
Sun can be a particular hazard for those who are into snow sports. When you’re at a high altitude, UV rays are more intense and the atmosphere provides less filtration. What’s more, the snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s rays. Wearing sunscreen and reapplying it throughout the day is the best way to avoid burning when you’re out having fun.
It’s also the best way to protect yourself when it’s cloudy and rainy, both on and off the mountain. Here in the Northwest it can be tempting to be lax about sunscreen once summer is over. However, just because our sunny days are less intense or there are gray skies above doesn’t mean you can safely stow your sunscreen. Our region has one of the highest melanoma rates in the country, despite our weather.
We now know that it’s not just sunburns that increase your skin cancer risk—the cumulative amount of UV light you’re exposed to also matters. Much of that exposure happens incrementally, when you take the kids to the park, drive in your car, go on a walk during lunch, sit in a sunny window, or work in your yard for a few minutes.
I advise all my patients to wear sunscreen year-round on any exposed skin. It’s advice I take to heart: I never leave the house without putting sunscreen on myself and my young kids. Making it part of your morning routine, just like tooth brushing, is a good way to ensure you’re using it consistently.
It’s best to choose sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) between 30 and 50. Anything under 30 SPF isn’t enough to prevent DNA damage, and any added protection above 50 SPF is nominal. Both chemical and mineral sunscreens are effective. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the damaging rays so they don’t injure the skin. Mineral sunscreens reflect the rays away. Mineral sunscreens tend to be more expensive, but may be preferable for people with sensitive skin. I also suggest them for babies and toddlers, who generally have more delicate skin.
Some people may hesitate to use sunscreens because they are afraid of the ingredients or worried that they are “toxic.” Remember that sunscreens have been used safely for decades. Experts believe that the risk posed by skin cancer is much greater than any potential risks posed by sunscreen products.
If you haven’t found a sunscreen that you love yet I urge you to keep trying. Tinted sunscreens are a great option for people who have problems with sunscreens leaving a white cast. I use Cotz tinted sunscreen myself. For my kids I use Kiss My Face SPF 30, which protects without leaving a greasy feeling. Lip balm with SPF coverage is important for protecting the lips. Remember to reapply whatever sunscreen you choose. I keep sunscreen in our cars and diaper bag so we can put on more if we’re going to be outside longer than we planned.
Beyond using sunscreen, you can also use hats and clothing to protect the skin. It’s important to keep in mind that not all clothing protects equally. A plain white t-shirt offers 5 to 7 SPF. Darker, thicker clothing blocks more rays. You can bump up the UV coverage of clothing by added Sun Guard to your laundry every few months.
If you haven’t been good about wearing sunscreen consistently, start today! It’s the best way to prevent skin cancer and keep skin looking young and healthy.