Contrary to common belief, the sun can be dangerous for your skin even in the cold season. Here are the solutions to protect yourself.
We’ve now learned our lesson: the reasons for solar protection are more than those for tanning. For this reason, we have learned to choose sun products based on our phototype. We tan in small sittings, starting low and going slow. We avoid being in the sun between 10 am and 4 pm, when solar rays are more perpendicular to the atmosphere.
There is only one problem: we only do all this in the summer. What about the winter? For some strange reason, when the cold comes and the sun “goes away”, we forget all our good habits. The sun, however – unfortunately and fortunately – does not disappear. Its rays, although less intense, continue to affect our skin – only this time round, they do so undisturbed.
Let’s be clear: sunlight is a must.
Sunlight is paramount for our physical and mental wellbeing. In addition to providing us with warmth, it also brings at least three essential benefits.
It improves our mood. The sun’s rays activate the release of serotonin, the so-called “happiness hormone”. Low serotonin levels are associated with a higher risk of depression, insomnia and hypertension.
It stimulates melanin production. While it is often overlooked, the first protection against the sun is stimulated by solar rays themselves. Melanin, which protects the skin by providing it with pigmentation, is stimulated by UV rays, and in particular by UVA rays.
It increases vitamin D synthesis. This vitamin (actually a hormone) stimulates bone and teeth mineralization and boosts our immune system. According to the World Health Organization, in order to avoid vitamin D deficiencies we should get at least 30 minutes of sunshine a day, three times a week.
But if the sun has such healthy effects on our body, why do we keep touting its dangers? For a complete answer, we must analyze UV rays and the effects they have on our skin.
UV rays: what they are and what they do.
About 10% of solar energy is composed of ultraviolet rays, so-called UV rays. Such rays, which are divided based on their wavelength in UVA, UVB and UVC rays, are not visible to humans. While UVC rays, which are extremely dangerous, are dissipated by the Earth’s atmosphere, UVA and UVB rays reach the eyes and the skin.
UVA rays. They are mainly responsible for the photo-aging process. Thanks to their longer wavelength, they are able to penetrate deep into the skin and damage fibroblasts, i.e. collagen-producing cells. Therefore, the skin will lose its firmness and wrinkles will appear (80% of the body’s wrinkles are caused such radiations).
UVB rays. Due to the shorter wavelength, they do not penetrate beyond the epidermis, and this is where they perform their action. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn, and in severe cases they can cause melanoma, the most dreaded of skin cancers.
Why UV rays are dangerous even in winter.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but the sun’s rays are often more dangerous in winter than in the summer. First of all for a psychological reason: in winter we underestimate the power of the sun, and we let our guard down. But there are also at least three objective reasons.
When it is cold outside, we no longer perceive the sun’s action on the skin.
Sunburn and erythema are also possible in winter, but the absence of the summer heat the skin means the skin doesn’t get irritated immediately. We therefore only notice the damage when it is at a more advanced stage. Furthermore, the cold prevents us from perceiving the sun’s action on the skin: if we feel an itch on our face or hands, we attribute it to other causes, for example to the cold.
The skin is less pigmented in winter.
Since it has not had the opportunity to gradually get used to the sun as it does in summer, our skin is very slightly pigmented in winter. This means that if your skin phototype is 1 or 2, you basically have no natural protection.
De-pigmented skin is extremely exposed to the risk of sunburn and photo-aging. And it is not even necessary for us to be outdoors – lingering for a few hours next to a large and bright window, like those of modern offices, could also suffice.
Windowpanes completely block UVB, but not UVA rays – which, I remind you, are the ones that attack collagen and accelerate wrinkles forming.
Holidays in the mountains further expose you to the sun’s rays.
Mountain regulars know all too well that attempting to tan without solar protection is very risky. It is no coincidence that tanning (and risking getting burned) on the slopes is much faster than at the seaside.
As the altitude increases, the air becomes more rarefied and the power of the sun’s rays increases. For every 300 meters in altitude, the intensity of UV rays increases by almost 5%. This means that at 1500 meters the intensity of UV rays is about 25% higher than at sea level.
But that is not all. In winter, the danger of UV rays increases further, due to the reflective effect of the snow and ice. This means that when you are out skiing, the intensity of UV rays can increase up to 90%.
This is the case even if the weather is overcast or foggy. Unlike infrared rays, UV rays penetrate through clouds and haze, while we, due to the cold and our cognitive biases, cannot feel their action and underestimate their danger.
Solar protection in winter dos and don’ts.
We are all very familiar with the rules of sun protection in the summer. Yet, in winter we seem to lose such references, and adopt risky behaviors, both by defect and by excess. Here is a quick summary of what we should do and should avoid doing.
Before leaving the house, apply sunscreen. It’s still the simplest and most effective anti-aging protection. Just choose the most suitable SPF (sun protection factor). One simple rule: if your skin type is 1 to 3, go for an SPF of at least 30. For skin types from 4 to 6, an SPF15 product will be sufficient.
However, make sure the sunscreen is broad-spectrum, i.e. it protect from both UVB and UVA. Also, remember to apply the cream at least 30 minutes before sun exposure, to reapply it every two hours and, in case of heavy snow, even more often.
Protect your eyes. UV rays can be very harmful for our eyes’ health, especially in the presence of snow and ice. Always wear sunglasses or ski goggles with adequate UV protection.
Protect your lips. The lips are very sensitive and show the signs of photo-aging before most other parts of the face. Long exposure to the sun can cause wrinkles, cracks and discolorations to appear. To further protect them, we use a lip exfoliator before applying lip balm.
Cover your head. Protect your head with a bobby hat or a warm beanie. In addition to protecting you from the cold, it will help prevent sunburn on the scalp and ears.
Don’t layer too many skin products. Do not insist on applying sunscreen over a moisturizer or foundation which already contains sunscreen. Only the outermost layer will act as a barrier to UV rays.
Don’t overdo it. By using too many products, one risks suffocating the skin and creating a toxic environment. This could cause unwanted dermatological problems such as inflammation, blackheads, and comedones.