Why You Should Wear Sunscreen in the Winter

woman putting on screenscreenMost people think about protecting their skin from the sun in the summer. But even in the depths of a New England winter, harmful long- and short-wave ultraviolet lights (UVA and UVB) are still coming through — and exposure can lead to premature skin aging and the development of skin cancer.

What’s more, if you take part in winter outdoor sports like skiing, snowboarding, or snowshoeing, you’re not only getting UVA and UVB rays directly from the sun, but they’re also reflecting off the snow — doubling your exposure.

That’s why it’s important to wear sunscreen year-round.

When it comes to how much and how often to apply sunscreen, here are some tips I share with my patients:

  • First and foremost, make wearing sunblock a daily habit, like brushing your teeth. In fact, put it next to your toothbrush!
  • If it’s a normal workday and you don’t get much direct sun exposure (you just go from home to the car to the office and back), apply sunscreen with your facial moisturizer in the morning. Some makeup and/or facial moisturizers have an SPF (sun protection factor) built-in, and oftentimes, if you use both makeup and moisturizer, this is sufficient.
  • Always put sunscreen on the back of your hands, too – just ask your grandmother if she wishes she had covered that area!
  • As for how much sunscreen to use, my standard instruction is a grape-sized dollop for the face and hands, and a shot-glass size amount for the entire body. If you’re spending time outdoors in direct sun, it should be reapplied every two hours.
  • If you’re actually using these recommended amounts, an SPF of 30 or above is fine. Since most folks don’t use these amounts, we suggest a higher SPF of 50 or above.

Some of you may have seen the recent flurry of news coverage about how certain chemicals in sunscreen were found in people’s blood. While this may have sounded alarming, it didn’t reveal anything that would prompt me to advise patients to avoid sunscreen altogether.

But if you want to err on the side of caution and minimize your chemical exposure, using “old-school” sunscreens that use minerals like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to block the sun’s rays would be a good option. Unlike chemical sunscreens that react with sunlight and absorb it, the physical or mineral sunscreens form a protective layer that light bounces off your skin.

Note that titanium dioxide- or zinc oxide-based sunscreens can leave a pasty-white residue on your skin, so if you’re using one of these products as a facial moisturizer, you might opt for a tinted one so it blends better. Also, some brands tend to blend better than others – if you don’t have success with the first one you try, consider trying another.

And one final piece of advice — be sure to get an annual skin check from a dermatologist. If you’re uncertain of when to start, talk to your primary care provider. Skin cancer is rare under the age of 35, but the fairer-skinned you are, the greater amount of sun exposure you’ve had, or if you have a lot of moles or a family history of skin cancer, the earlier you should consider starting annual skin checks.

This blog post is part of our Simply Women initiative that caters to the unique health care needs of women and their families.

Guest Blogger: Riley McLean-Mandell, MD, Dermatologist, UMass Memorial Medical Center

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