For most people, applying sunscreen in the summer becomes second nature. Whether you're spending the day at the beach or enjoying a good book in the garden, you sense the effects of the sun's rays almost immediately, the warmth on your skin, reminding you to layer on the sunscreen before you start to burn.

But how important is applying sunscreen in winter, when sunshine seems like a distant memory and most of your body is buried beneath layers of clothing? Experts and Dermatologists say that, in fact, sunscreen is just as vital in the colder months and an integral part of a protective winter skin care regime—especially for your face. Here's a look at the reasons why.

The Truth About Seasonal Sunshine

The Earth is tilted in space so that in the fall and winter months, its northern hemisphere receives less direct sunlight for less time. While this does mean colder weather, shorter days, and weaker sun, it doesn't mean you're avoiding potentially harmful ultraviolet (UV) exposure.

Why Apply Sunscreen in Winter?

The sun's rays are divided into two types based on their frequency: UVA and UVB. UVA rays are responsible for the majority of premature photo-aging in the skin, whereas UVB rays are what burn your skin, causing pain, redness, and peeling in the short term (and contributing to your cancer risk).

It may surprise you to know that UVA rays are present in the atmosphere year-round. With a longer wavelength, these aren't perceivable but can penetrate through clouds, glass, water, and even some clothing. When the skin is left unprotected from UVA for long periods throughout our lives, the cumulative effect can cause damage to the DNA of your skin cells, leading to fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, and even skin cancer.

Similarly, UVB rays aren't gone completely either. Though these rays are strongest in the summer—especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.—this doesn't mean they're not present in the winter, or that you can't get burned.

When Are You at Risk of Winter Sun Damage?

In short, you're at risk anytime you're outside. Ice skating on your favorite pond, getting away for a day of skiing, or just shoveling snow from your driveway on a sunny morning can all leave your skin at greater risk of sun damage. This is due, in part, to the way UVB rays reflect on ice and snow.

The American Cancer Society advises that you should be especially careful in areas with snow as it reflects sunlight, increasing the amount of UV radiation that reaches your skin. In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun's UV light, so these rays hit you twice. Further, the sun can be stronger at high altitudes where there's less atmosphere between you and the sun to filter out harmful rays—another reason for added care if you're on the slopes. Cumulative damage from such exposure increases your risk of skin cancer and premature aging.

Fitting Sunscreen Into Your Skin Care Routine

The most effective way to prevent cumulative UV damage is by introducing a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen to your winter skin care routine. Keep in mind that "broad-spectrum" describes sun care that protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. These products will help ensure your skin is protected from visible and invisible sun damage.

Additionally, if you struggle like so many do with cracked or chapped lips in the winter, grab a premium lip balm specially formulated to moisturize while offering high SPF to boot.

Sunscreen is important all year-round and should be the last step in your daily skin care routine­, applied after your usual serum and moisturizer to the face, neck, chest, and hands. Apply even on gray winter days when you don't plan on venturing outside because the rays can pass through car and building windows. Remember: the sun's UV rays don't take the winter off, so neither can you.


  • Catherine Hufton

    Catherine Hufton is a UK-based freelance journalist and writer who has worked for some of fashion's most iconic companies and written for the world's best known magazines and newspapers. Beginning her career at Net-a-Porter and Matches Fashion over 12 years ago, she has created content for L'Oréal, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, The Telegraph and more.