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Winter Sun Safety: What You Need to Know About Protecting Your Skin in the Winter

May 9, 2022

Written by
Neha Jayaram, Communications and Marketing Specialist

Slathering your skin with sunscreen, being vigilant about sun exposure is usually associated with the summer months, when the sun shines bright and intense. Most people let their skin protection slip during the winter months, especially on overcast days. This shouldn’t be the case though; protecting your skin from the sun is necessary every day, regardless of the weather or season.

Even on cold or overcast days, damage causing UV rays from the sun are reaching your skin. You can sustain skin damage as easily in the winter as on a hot summer day. 

Winter Sunlight

There are two kinds of UV (ultraviolet) rays, UVA and UVB. Understanding the basics of UV rays is key to safeguarding yourself against skin aging and skin cancer. UV radiation is part of the sun’s natural energy. On the electromagnetic spectrum, UV light has shorter wavelengths than visible light, so your eyes can’t see UV, but your skin can feel it. Tanning beds also emit UV radiation.

Two types of UV light are proven to contribute to the risk for skin cancer:

  • Ultraviolet A (UVA) has a longer wavelength, and is associated with skin aging.
  • Ultraviolet B (UVB) has a shorter wavelength and is associated with skin burning.

While UVA and UVB rays differ in how they affect the skin, they both do harm. Unprotected exposure to UVA and UVB damages the DNA in skin cells, producing genetic defects, or mutations, that can lead to skin cancer (as well as premature aging.) These rays can also cause eye damage, including cataracts and eyelid cancers.

UV exposure that leads to sunburn has proven to play a strong role in developing melanoma, the most dangerous of the three most common types of skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma). Recent research shows that the UV rays that damage skin can also alter a gene that suppresses tumors, raising the risk of sun-damaged skin cells developing into skin cancer.

UVB rays, the main cause of sunburn are the strongest in the summer. However, these rays can burn your skin all year round especially at high altitudes and on reflective surfaces like snow or ice. In fact, snow reflects up to 80% of the sun’s UV light, so the rays hit your skin twice, furthering increasing the risk of skin damage.

UVA rays remain constant through the year and can penetrate through fog and clouds. It can also penetrate through glass, so you’re at risk even when you’re driving or spending time indoors.

How to Protect Your Skin?

Your first line of defense is easy: clothing! Unlike the summer, this is easier to do in the winter, it’s so cold we’re mostly covered anyway. Despite this, our face, head and often neck remain exposed; this is also where most skin cancers occur.

Put on your UV-blocking sunglasses! It’ll help block the sun’s glare on the snow and also protect you from cataracts and eyelid cancers.

Wear a hat to protect your scalp from UV ray damage. We often forget about our scalps, especially if we have hair on our head. The sun can cause hair damage too, so irrespective of the season, put on a weather appropriate hat.

The most important, and often neglected, part of skin protection is using sunscreen. In fact, most people are either using the wrong sunscreen or not using it correctly. Irrespective of whether you use a sport spray, a stick or a moisturizing sunscreen, the best sunscreen is one you will use every day.

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor; this number tells you how long the sun’s UVB rays would take to redden your skin when using a sunscreen compared with no sunscreen. So if you use an SPF 15 product exactly as directed (applied generously and evenly, and reapplied after two hours or after sweating or swimming), it would take you 15 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen.

“Broad spectrum” on a label indicates that the ingredients in the sunscreen will effectively protect you against both UVA and UVB rays.

The Skin Cancer Foundation advises everyone to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.

When using sunscreen, slather it on and make sure to cover often-missed spots like your ears, around your eyes and hairline. Don’t forget to put on a lip balm with SPF as well!

If possible, avoid the sun’s peak hours between 10am and 4pm and seek shade whenever you can. Consider a UV window film for your home and car. Avoid indoor tanning entirely, it’s very unsafe.

Even when it’s freezing and you can’t see the sun, keep up your summer skin protection habits. Make it a way of life, a part of your daily routine, to avoid dark spots, leathery skin, wrinkles and most importantly, skin cancer!