Chilly temperatures may have you pulling on cozy sweaters and coats, but don’t be fooled: You can’t stop protecting yourself from skin cancer just because winter is coming, says Angie Seelal, RPA-C, of Advanced Dermatology P.C.

When the sun is shining bright, it is easy to remember that ultraviolet (UV) rays that can cause skin cancer – the most common cancer across the globe – are reaching your skin. “But overcast skies and winter weather don’t necessarily block out the rays that can damage your skin cells and lead to skin cancer,” says Seelal, a Physician Assistant with years of experience treating chronic skin conditions.

The statistics are jolting: 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by age 70, and more than 2 people die of skin cancer in the United States every hour, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Additionally, more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day nationwide. “Almost all of us dismiss the risk of skin cancer or how severe it can be,” Seelal explains, “but the reality is that skin cancer poses a threat to nearly everyone, even in winter. Fortunately, there are common-sense steps we can take that lower those risks.”

Winter’s dangers

It is important to know that harmful UV rays do not take a break just because the calendar flips to the colder months. While UVB rays, the main cause of sunburn, are stronger in summer, they are also out in force at high altitudes and on reflective surfaces such as ice or snow. Plus, the thinner atmosphere at higher altitudes does not block as many rays.

“If you enjoy skiing, skating, snowboarding, or hiking in the snow,

cancer-causing UVB rays are out there with you too,” Seelal says. “Snow reflects about 80% of the sun’s UV rays, so they essentially hit your skin twice. A day on the ski slopes is just as dangerous to your skin as a day on the beach.”

Especially on cloudy days, winter sports enthusiasts are at greater risk of skin. It is also important to understand that both snow and strong winds can wear away any sunscreen protection used and thereby reduce its effectiveness, so it is particularly important to actively reapply at least every 2 hours, Seelal notes. And UVA rays, which stay constant throughout the year, can penetrate glass. “Sitting inside next to the window, in your house or car, is still potentially skin-damaging on a bright winter day,” she adds.

Also, for those who happily benefit from warmer winter temperatures from living in the southern part of the United States, keep in mind you are exposed to a similar amount of UV radiation from the sun year-round. “When the sun remains strong no matter the season, your skin stands at higher risk,” Seelal says.

Tips for prevention

Staying sun-safe in winter is easier from the standpoint that you are usually wearing more clothing just to stay warm. Coats, hats, scarves, gloves – they all contribute to sun protection merely by preventing the sun from reaching the skin they are covering. But your face, head and neck are typically exposed all year long, so Seelal advises paying close attention to preventing skin cancer on these vulnerable areas. How to do that? 

She recommends wearing:

• UV-blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes

• Broad-brimmed hats

• Moisturizing

• Broad-spectrum sunscreen that’s SPF 30 or higher on all exposed skin, including the top of the ears, around the eyes and near the hairline

• Avoiding sun exposure during peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm is wise during the winter months

“Skin cancer is largely preventable, and it just takes a little extra thought to protect ourselves in the winter months,” she says.

“Don’t let your guard down just because it’s cold outside.”

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