If this week’s snowfall has you planning to hit the ski slopes this weekend, don’t use the weather as your guide for determining sunscreen protection.
Skiers and snowboarders are accustomed to applying sunscreen and wearing goggles or glasses on a bright, sunny winter’s day. But, they are far less inclined to take these protective measures on a cloudy day, according to a recent study published in the Archives of Dermatology.
To test the weather, time related or environmental cues that skiers and snowboarders use to determine their level of sun protection, researchers collected data from almost 4,000 adults over a 3 year period at 32 ski areas in Western North America.
Ultraviolet measurements were taken over a three day period at each ski resort. Two measurements were recorded with a meter directly facing the sun (direct), toward the sky facing away from the sun (diffuse) and toward the snowy slope (reflected).
As expected, average UV levels at the different ski areas was low but varied widely. UV levels were highest in direct sunlight, but diffuse and reflected UV levels were relatively high in comparison (70% and 57% of direct, respectively). Not surprisingly, ultraviolet radiation increased on late winter and early spring days.
The strongest predictors of UV levels at the ski areas was time closest to noon (when the sun is at its highest point in the sky), deviation from winter solstice (as the days grow longer after Dec 20th – the shortest day of the year) and clear skies. Altitude and latitude had a more modest association with UV levels.
As UV levels increased, skiers/snowboarders engaged in some sun protective behaviors. Guests were more likely to wear sunscreen, reapply after 2 hours and wear glasses or goggles. However, they were less likely to apply sunscreen 30 minutes prior to starting; to cover their face, ears or neck; to use an SPF lip balm; or to wear a wide brim hat or gloves. Interestingly, as UV levels increased, men were more likely to apply sunscreen and use a hat with a brim than women.
Guests used two cues to determine the day’s sun protection – clear skies or inclement weather. When skies were clear, guests were more likely to use sunscreen, reapply after 2 hours, and wear protective lip balm. When the weather was cloudy and cold, behavior was motivated more by inclement weather and cold protection. Guests wore headgear, used sunscreen 30 minutes before starting, and covered their face, neck and ears.
In an alpine environment, skiers/snowboarders are bathed in radiation. UV comes not only from direct sunlight but from diffuse radiation and reflected radiation from the snow. These multiple sources of UV underscore the need for guests to use comprehensive sun protection while enjoying the outdoors.
Researchers cautioned skiers/snowboarders to be cautious about cloud cover as a UV indicator. They urged the need to consider season and time of day as the most reliable indictor. In particular, outdoor enthusiasts should use sun protection on cloudy days at midday in the spring, when UV levels can be dangerously high.
The Bottom Line
If you’ve skied or boarded out West, you can attest to the wonderful feeling of basking in the sun while going up the chairlift or eating lunch outside. The problem is that all this sun exposure damages the skin and leads to aging and even skin cancer. I know firsthand. Even though I live in Los Angeles, I suspect that I get most of my sun exposure while I ski during the winter months in Park City, UT.
If you don’t want to be part of the growing number of people each year diagnosed with melanoma, you must practice sun protection on a regular basis – regardless of the time of year, time of day, cloud cover or altitude – while visiting ski areas.
Here’s a few recommendations:
– Apply a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher 30 minutes before heading out
– Reapply SPF a few times during the day and be sure to cover your ears and neck
– Protect your lips with SPF and be sure to reapply throughout the day
– Wear protective eye wear – goggles or glasses with polarized lenses
– Protect your hands, even when the temperature rises, by wearing thin gloves or glove liners
– Protect your head and face by wearing a cap or hat (or in our case we wear helmets)
Remember – weather may not be a reliable indicator of UV. Learn to recognize when UV is high. Practice sun safety even if it’s a cold, cloudy day; you’re in the shade, or it is late in the day.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.