How to

11 November 2016

Is Sunscreen Necessary in Winter?

The tropical, fruity smell of sunscreen is usually permeated by an undertone of tell-tale chemicals. A single whiff of the sun-protectant is enough to conjure up a picturesque island holiday replete with sun and sand. However, sunscreen is not reserved solely for sunny days out; it should be a part of your daily skin care application. I know what some of you are thinking: even in winter? The answer is a resounding - yes, even in winter. Regardless of the temperature, throughout the year the sun is an omnipresent force. It brings happiness, a good dose of vitamin D, and harmful UV rays responsible for premature aging and skin cancer. Oh my.

Ask the Experts

Healthista, a women-run website offering uncomplicated life information, asked experts about whether sunscreen should be worn in winter. Dr. Frank Schwanke is one of those experts. Working in research and development at Beiersdorf, Schwanke says that skin’s needs change with the season. The nice tan you work on in the summer is actually your skin’s way of protecting against the sun’s rays. Tanning is a response to UV exposure, serving as a protectant for the skins cells against radiation. In the summer, skin becomes used to UV radiation, hence the nicely-bronzed skin. In the cold months, pale winter skin has a lower concentration of melanin, “the skin’s own pigment and responsible for the pigmentation (tan) of skin.” This means that skin is ill-equipped to handle UV radiation, making sunscreen the only protectant for your skin cells against aging and the harmful effects of UV radiation.

For the skiers and snowboarders among you, bear in mind that “as snow and ice reflect UV radiation … intensity can be increased by 80-90%. Additionally, intensity increases with height. In total sun stress in winter in mountains becomes comparable to a summer day at the beach.” Toting a high SPF sunscreen in your bag will protect your skin against sunburns; even if your friends give you grief, you’ll know that you are in the right. Just refer them to this study showing that people who participate in alpine sports are at a greater risk for squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. Schwanke recommends applying sunscreen to all exposed areas, protecting eyes with UVA and UVB protectant sunglasses, and caring for lips which often become dry and sensitive in winter.

Dr Noor Almaani, a consultant dermatologist at The Private Clinic, gives Healthista her two cents on the matter of sun damage in the winter. UVA, the main UV ray soaked up in sun beds, penetrates deeply into the skin and can go through clouds and glass. Its intensity does not alter throughout the day. On the other hand, UVB, responsible for the redness and physical sunburn, can cause DNA damage, genetic mutations, and skin cancers. UVB rays are most intense from late morning to late afternoon. Exposure to any UV rays “reduces the immunity in the skin and this can explain why, for example, some are prone to getting cold sores on sun exposure.” The regular application of sunscreen can fight against decreased elasticity, wrinkle formation, uneven pigmentation, lentigos (sun spots), dark pigmentation of forehead and cheeks (melasma), and visible pores.

Make ups and moisturisers containing SPF can help to shorten the amount of time spent applying sun protection; however, these products alone do not offer full protection, especially on sunny days. Almaani says that it’s best to apply sunscreen 20 minutes before leaving the house or putting on clothing, applying an additional layer an hour or every few hours after. She says, “It’s important to note that the SPF in sunscreens refers to UVB protection whereas the star system found on the back of the tube or bottle refers to UVA protection (Ideally use SPF >35 for UVB and 5 stars for UVA).”

Dr. Cynthia Bailey, a Board Certified dermatologist who develops her own skin care products and runs a dermatology office, talks about the realities of skin damage if sunscreen is not worn in the non-summer months and throughout the day regardless of sun strength. According to Bailey, “from sunup to sundown, January or July you’re getting the same hit of UVA.” Regardless of the time of day or amount of actual sunlight, UVA rays are always present in full strength. UVA causes damage to deeper levels of the skin and is responsible for wrinkles whereas UVB causes sunburn. If free radicals are present in your skin (eliminate them with a morning cleanse), UVA works in tandem with them to thin skin. Thinned skin leads to fine wrinkles, “extrinsic aging of the skin as opposed to intrinsic aging.” The damage UVA rays cause is irreversible! This is why it’s so important to protect against it from the get-go.

Luckily, Bailey has a few easy-to-follow tips to protecting against the sun’s harmful rays. First off, cover up as much of your skin as possible with clothing and hats. Aside from the obvious areas, cover the arms and chest, a problem area “where people get a lot of unfortunate skin thinning from sun damage because they wear short sleeved v-neck shirts.” She also recommends adding skin care products with a high concentration of antioxidants to your daily care routine. Items with green tea polyphenols, vitamin C and E provide free radical protection and can reduce UV damage.

 An oft-forgotten area of protection is the scalp. Melanoma of the scalp and neck are responsible for 10% of all melanoma deaths. Cover up with a hat if you’ll be spending the day outdoors or spritz on a lotion with SPF.

Here’s what to look for…

Realistically, sunscreen should be worn daily because even cloudy days, 80% of UV rays reach the ground (“When should I use sunscreen?”).  There are two types of UV rays, UVA and UVB, and a broad spectrum sunscreen will protect against both. Ensure that your sunscreen of choice is broad spectrum with SPF 15 and above is the bare minimum to wear for daily use. Those who engage in mountainside sports should up that to SPF 30. Annoying as it is, remember that sunscreen should be applied at least every two hours, more frequently if sweating or swimming. It’s important to let the sunscreen dry and fully absorb before leaving home. Dr. Almaani recommends SunSense items like their Daily Face SPF50+ Invisible Tint Finish Sunscreen which has protection against both UVA and UVB. If you’re looking for something to work into a makeup routine, Super City Block by Clinique can be worn as a primer offering UVA and UVB protection.

As an alternative to chemical sunscreen, you might consider physical sunscreen which deflects the sun’s rays. Conversely, chemical sunscreen absorbs the sun’s rays. Containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, physical sunscreen offers broad spectrum protection and has a longer period of coverage meaning less reapplication. Less chemicals equal less irritation. As Dr. Bailey develops her own products, much of what she recommends is her own concoction. Try her Sheer Strength Pure Physical Sunscreen SPF 50+ as a protectant for the scalp, also available as a lotion in her Sheer Strength Pure Physical Tinted Matte Sunscreen SPF 50+.

Another important thing to invest in is a lip balm with sunscreen. Try Dr. Bailey’s Elta MD UV Lip BalmBroad-Spectrum SPF 31.

Choose to Abstain

It is totally up to you to decide whether or not to adopt sunscreen into your skin routine. However, if you choose to abstain, be prepared for freckles, age spots, spider veins, unsmooth and/or loose skin, fine wrinkles, and blotchy complexion. A 2013 study published by the Annals of Internal Medicine found that the ageing process was slowed by 24% for a group that used sunscreen regularly.

If you want to alter your diet rather than wear sunscreen, you’re at least on the right track. Fruits and veggies with antioxidants fight free radicals and sun damage in one. Add leafy greens, peppers, squash, watermelon, berries, and tomatoes to your diet and limit meat, dairy products, simple carbohydrates, sugar, and processed foods which cause inflammation and can exacerbate sun damage. 

Jacqui Litvan

Jacqui Litvan, wielding a bachelor's degree in English, strives to create a world of fantasy amidst the ever-changing landscape of military life. Attempting to become a writer, she fuels herself with coffee (working as a barista) and music (spending free time as a raver).