Some of our earliest memories are those beach days with our families; building sand castles, collecting sand crabs, and – before anything else – getting slathered in SPF before trekking across the sand. Earlier generations weren’t so fortunate, unaware of the harmful effects of UVA and UVB rays until recent scientific developments.
Today, it’s commonly known that exposure to the sun directly correlates to skin damage. Nonetheless, one common myth persists: you don’t need winter sunscreen. Most people are under the impression that they can forgo their regular summertime sunscreen application as the seasons change. Quite the contrary: you still need to wear sunscreen in the winter, no matter how cold or overcast it may be. A variety of factors increase your vulnerability to sun exposure in winter weather – especially when skiing and snowboarding. Here we’ll break down the ins and outs as to how sunburns form, what danger they pose, and why sunscreen for skiing on the mountain matters.
The Science of Sunburns
In order to understand how sun exposure leads to permanent alterations in your skin, you must first understand the science of sunburns. Let’s take a look at the structure of the skin:
The epidermis is the outermost layer of human skin. Despite being as thin as a piece of paper, it’s responsible for many biological functions. The epidermis is the first line of defense in our immune system, and it also gives our skin its water-resistant quality. Melanin, or a dark brown pigment, is also found in the epidermis.
The dermis is the thickest layer of skin. The presence of nerves, blood vessels, hair follicles, and sebaceous glands account for its size. The dermis is where the production of collagen and elastin occurs. These two proteins are integral to the vitality of our skin; the first provides skin cells with their strength and structure, while the latter enables the skin to stretch back and forth, making it ‘elastic’.
The innermost layer of skin is composed of subcutaneous tissue. It’s mostly responsible for fat storage, insulation, and keeping organs intact. Sometimes known as the hypodermis, subcutaneous tissue also protects bones and muscles from damage, while acting as a passageway for the nerves and blood vessels to the dermis.
When unprotected skin is exposed to sun, its various layers soak up ultraviolet (UV) rays. The sun produces three different types of UV rays, but we only contend with two (UVC rays, although they are the most energetic and dangerous, are not able to penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere):
- UVB (shortwave) rays damage the superficial layers of your skin, producing the telltale signs of sunburn on the epidermis.
- UVA (long-wave) rays penetrate deep into the dermis, leading to the breakdown of collagen and elastin.
Melanin is your skin’s form of protection against UV rays. It absorbs and attempts to convert the UV rays into heat (ever feel that hot sensation?) and when exposed to the sun, will go into defensive mode by spreading itself. This instant pigmentation – or that tan you love so much – is actually your body’s way of protecting cellular nuclei and the DNA therein. Tans are a sign of protection – which is a good thing – but in order to get tan, your skin is injured. Your skin darkens in an imperfect attempt to prevent further DNA damage; these imperfections, or mutations, are what lead to skin cancer.
Wherever your skin lacks melanin, UVB rays will sneak in and cause damage to the epidermal cells. The body attempts to compensate for the destroyed cells by sending in fresh replacements. Skin naturally regenerates itself, but when the sun accelerates this process, the new cells (keratinocytes) don’t have the opportunity to mature. Instead of separating, they stick together like a sheet of tissue, which causes peeling and flaking. In the case of severe sunburns, the damage caused to skin cells results in an engorgement of blood vessels in the dermis. The liquid that builds up during this process needs to go somewhere, and it manifests as a blister.
The Damage of Sunburns
The damaging effects of UVB rays are easy to spot: painful sunburns, feelings of intense heat, peeling, flaking, and tenderness. Remember that skin is the body’s largest organ and acts as a barrier against foreign invaders. It’s our immune system’s first line of defense, and when compromised, suppresses our ability to fight off maladies (we face aplenty in winter months!). Repeated damage to the superficial cells of the epidermis dramatically increases one’s risk for skin cancer. UVB rays also contribute to photoaging, or changes in the skin (wrinkles, dark spots, pigmentation) due to prolonged sun exposure.
The damage caused by UVA rays is more insidious. Although it initially goes unseen, UVA rays cause lasting damage when they penetrate the dermis. As UVA rays break down collagen and elastin fibers, they cause your skin to lose its strength and elasticity. The skin becomes brittle and inflexible, leading to the development of wrinkles and fine lines.
Sunscreen for Skiing and Snowboarding
Now that we know the risks posed by unprotected skin – premature aging, wrinkles, sunspots, pigmentation, and even cancer – what makes winter sunscreen especially important? Here are a few factors that contribute to the intensified need of sunscreen for skiing and snowboarding:
- High Altitudes:
UVB rays lose their intensity as they filter through the Earth’s atmosphere. The light moving towards Earth gets scattered, reflected, and/or absorbed, but at higher altitudes, there’s less of an opportunity for such filtration. This means that when you’re on the mountain skiing or snowboarding, you have increased exposure to harmful UVB rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UV radiation exposure increases between 4 and 5 percent every 1,000 feet above sea level – the higher you are, the greater the need for winter sunscreen.
- Reflective Surfaces:
When UVB rays hit reflective surfaces such as snow or ice, 80% of the rays will bounce back up and hit your skin twice (compared to the 20% of rays reflected by sand at the beach). Reflection of radiation from snow significantly increases your risk of sunburn and demands aggressive protection from winter sunscreen.
- Cloud Penetration:
Many people believe there’s no need for winter sunscreen if it’s overcast, cloudy, misty, or foggy. However, up to 80% of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays can penetrate cloud coverage. Different types of clouds are better or worse at reflecting rays, so pay attention to the sky; white, fluffy clouds allow more rays to shine through than gray ones, for example. Wear sunscreen for skiing, even if the sun’s not shining. Beware that the sun’s reflection is also strong on cloudy days, too!
- Snow and Wind:
Both snow and wind can reduce the effectiveness of your sunscreen. Being exposed to wind can cause the epidermis to dry out, and thereby weaken. The force of the wind can then make these dry, weak skin cells fall off. When this skin is sloughed off, not only does your sunscreen go with it, but it leaves the newly exposed skin to UV damage. Falling snow can also wash off any applied sunscreen, so if you’re on a mountain in inclement weather, you need to apply winter sunscreen liberally and regularly.
Getting a good run in on the mountain can be quite a workout. Despite how cold it may be, your body bundled in layers will still produce sweat in an attempt to cool itself down. Sweat is sunscreen’s archenemy, so be sure to reapply your sunscreen for snowboarding or skiing multiple times throughout the day (every 2 hours, to be exact).
Winter is usually associated with frostbite and wind chill, not sunburns and skin damage. All the same, it’s important to remember the necessity of winter sunscreen – skin cancer isn’t seasonal.
Colorescience has you covered with sunscreen for skiing and snowboarding, hitting the beach, or for any time you’re in sunlight. Our mineral sunscreen provides broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays to safeguard you from the sun all year round. Before you hit the slopes, make sure sunscreen for skiing and snowboarding adds to the rich body butters and moisturizing masks within your winter skincare routine.