Do I need to worry about sun exposure in the winter?

The calendar may say it’s winter, but that doesn’t mean you can let your guard down and forget about protecting yourself from the sun. The sun’s ultraviolet rays are the leading cause of skin cancer. Winter months can be dangerous, particularly for people with sensitive or fair-colored skin as well as for anyone who enjoys skiing. Ultraviolet radiation increases at high altitudes. We asked David Leffell, M.D., skin cancer and dermatology specialist from Yale School of Medicine, for advice on how you can protect yourself year-round from the harmful effects of the sun.

Dr. Leffell writes:

“Two activities occur in winter that increase our exposure to the harmful effects of the sun, and we rarely think about them as a problem. First, as mentioned, ultraviolet radiation bounces off snow (as much as 80%) and can be  a risk for skiers and snowboarders. High altitude significantly increases the intensity of ultraviolet radiation. For every 1,000 meters increase in altitude, UV levels increase by 10% to 12%.

“Second, many people head to sunny climates for a one or two week vacation and have substantial sun exposure during the brief period they are enjoying the warm weather.

“Because the effects of ultraviolet radiation are cumulative over time, starting in childhood in fact, it is important to practice good sun protection year round. Follow these tips:

  1. Make sure that your exposed skin is well protected with sunscreen. Use a sunscreen that is broad spectrum, that is, that protects against ultraviolet B rays (make sure you use a product with an SPF of 30) AND ultraviolet A rays. Right now there is no ultraviolet A rating like SPF but it is coming very soon.
  2. Protect your lips with a sunscreen stick specially designed for the lips. This type of product can also be used around the eyes.
  3. If you are active in a warm climate make sure you wear a hat that has a brim and protects your ears. A baseball cap provides limited protection.
  4. If you are in a warm climate avoid the direct sun between 10 and 4.

“Most of all, use common sense. If you get a sunburn after a day on the slopes, you should change your sun protection strategy immediately!”

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