According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), UVA rays from the sun increase exponentially with altitude and can be significantly more damaging in the mountains than at sea level.
“During the winter, even cautious outdoor enthusiasts may unknowingly put their skin at risk by leaving it unprotected or under-protected,” said Jennifer Rice, PA, founder and CEO of Sierra Summits, a skincare company based in the Lake Tahoe area in the Sierra Mountains. “Cool weather may lull people into thinking they don’t need sunscreen when, in fact, UV rays are intensified by snow and high altitudes.”
Snow reflects 80 percent of UV rays and UV intensity increases by 10 percent for every 1,000-foot increase in elevation. In the mountains or snow, skin can burn more severely in less time. The AAD recommends applying sunscreen whenever you intend to be in the sun for more than 20 minutes, no matter what time of year it is. Yet a recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that many sunscreen products on the market simply do not offer the level of sunscreen protection recommended to effectively guard against sun damage, including skin cancer.
Rice recommends seeking out a sunblock specially formulated for high-altitude exposure. She worked directly with patients for years in the dermatology community to create a sunblock after hearing patients complain that there was no affordable product on the market that protected skin under intense, high-altitude conditions. She designed the Sierra Summits formulation to offer multiple-hour, broad spectrum, high-altitude and photostable protection against UVB and UVA rays even on the highest peaks.
“People who live and play in the Sierras are serious about sun protection,” says Rice. To keep skin safe in the summer, Rice offers these tips:
- Don’t go naked! Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen (filters both UVA and UVB rays) year-round if you plan to be outside for 20 minutes or more.
- Know your burn and don’t assume it’s windburn. Many people mistake sunburn for windburn due to similar symptoms, especially in cold winter conditions.
- Save the mask for Mardi Gras. Take adequate time to make sure your face is evenly protected throughout the day.
- When in higher altitudes (or around snow or water), choose an SPF of 30 or above.
- Don’t forget to protect your eyes; they can get burned too! Wear sunglasses or goggles with UV protection in the snow. You’ll look cool and your eyes will thank you.
- By the time you notice a sunburn, it’s already too late. Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin early and often.
- Your scalp is especially susceptible to burn in higher altitudes, so wear a hat.
- If you are in a profession that demands routine sun exposure, such as a pilot, flight attendant, resort employee, construction worker, landscaper, etc., don’t discount the damage your job may invite. Consider sunblock part of your daily uniform.