During the winter season, nature slows down. Plants grow at a slower rate, and many animals go into hibernation. What doesn't hibernate, however, are the sun's rays.
It's true that you may see less of the sun during cold, snowy days, but ultraviolet (UV) light still shines through. With that said, you may ask yourself: Can you get a sunburn in the winter? The answer is yes, it's possible. Here's how to help prevent sunburn and other winter skin issues.
Summer vs. Winter Rays
The sun's UV rays, the invisible part of sunlight, are responsible for sunburns. When you have too much exposure to these rays, your skin reacts by forming a sunburn, explains John Hopkins Medicine.
There are two main types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. Both can cause sunburn and skin damage, but they differ in terms of strength. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn because they have more energy. Although they're strongest during the summer, they can still burn your skin in the winter, per the Skin Cancer Foundation. The strength of UVA rays, however, doesn't waver throughout the year. UVA rays are just as strong during the winter as they are in any season, so they can reach your skin through the overcast sky.
Despite being weaker than UVB, UVA rays are more likely to penetrate the sky and reach the Earth's surface. About 95 percent of UV rays that touch the ground are UVA, compared to 5 percent UVB, says the American Cancer Society.
So, what does this mean? It means that UV rays don't just disappear. UVA rays are present year-round, so protecting against them is necessary to prevent sunburns in the winter.
It also means that sunburns aren't the only concern. UVA rays can cause cellular damage that speeds up the visible signs of aging and increases the risk of skin cancer.
All About Winter Sunburns
How can you get a sunburn in the winter? It's all about the elements around you. Snow, ice, and altitude—on top of the sun's rays shining through cold and cloudy skies—can all put your skin at increased risk.
While UVB rays aren't as strong as in the summer, they're still a cause for concern in the colder months. This is because up to 80 percent of the sun's UV light is reflected off of snow, causing UV rays to hit your skin twice, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And similar to how the sun's rays can reflect off of water, the same is true of ice. So, if you'll be around ice or snow, there's even more reason that sunburn prevention should be on your mind.
Hitting the slopes can also put your skin at risk for sunburn in the winter. This is due to a stark change in altitude. The higher up you are, the closer you are to the sun—and the less the atmosphere can absorb UV light. So, on top of that slope, the sun can more easily reach your skin and at greater strength, too. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), UV levels increase by about 10 percent with every 1,000-meter increase in altitude. Latitude also affects UV levels, says the WHO. If your winter plans include a vacation closer to the equator, the sun's rays have a shorter distance to travel to you.
What About Other Winter Skin Conditions?
Winter is one of the toughest seasons for skin health. Cold temperatures, dry air, and harsh elements like snow and wind all nip away at you. So, a sunburn in winter could be mistaken for other skin issues, such as windburn, frostbite, or winter rash.
Boating, cycling, or skiing during the winter could lead to windburn. Though it doesn't last as long as sunburn, windburn has similar symptoms, like redness and a burning sensation. The strikingly similar symptoms can make it difficult to tell the difference, and they can even occur at the same time. However, windburn is usually less severe and is associated with extreme dryness.
Frostbite, which affects the entire body and not just your complexion, can also damage the skin. Frostbite occurs when skin's soft tissue begins to freeze, leading to discoloration and sometimes peeling, per the Cleveland Clinic. Frostbite is also painful and gives skin a red appearance, but frostbitten skin feels harder than sunburned skin.
Finally, like winter sunburns, winter rashes can occur. A winter rash is characterized by irritated, dry skin and may peel or flake. Unlike sunburns, rashes usually come back year after year in those susceptible to them. They're often caused by aggressive winter elements, but sunburn can also cause or aggravate the rash.
Winter Sun Protection and Skin Care
As you can see, sun protection is just as essential during the winter as in the summer. These basic sun protection principles apply all year long:
- Avoid direct sun exposure when the sun is at its peak, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Seek shade when possible and avoid sitting next to open windows, seeing as sunlight can penetrate glass.
- Wear sun-protective clothing, like sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, and long-sleeve shirts.
- Apply and reapply sunscreen at least every two hours or as needed. EltaMD UV Restore Broad-Spectrum SPF 40 protects against sunburns and sun damage while revitalizing sun-compromised skin.
- When participating in winter sports, use a water-resistant sunscreen that will withstand rain, snow, and sweat, like EltaMD UV Sport Broad-Spectrum SPF 50.
You live in your skin year-round, so remember to give it the attention it deserves during the dark winter months. You might not be outdoors as often, and the sun may hide behind the clouds more days than not. But taking good care of your skin can help your inner glow shine—even when the sun isn't.