With grey and rainy skies above, many Pacific Northwest residents forego sun protection during the fall and winter. But while it’s true that we’re further away from the sun now, and that clouds filter out some UV rays, a surprising amount of damaging UV light still gets through.
Scientists now know that it’s not just how much and how badly people are burned that influences their skin cancer risk, it’s how much UV light they are exposed to overall. Put simply, UV light accumulation increases the risk of skin cancer. The Pacific Northwest has one of the highest melanoma rates in the country—despite our weather. It’s clear that we need to rethink our relationship with the sun even on the days we can’t see it.
As a physician assistant at Vancouver Clinic, I advise all my patients to stay committed to skin protection year-round. I recommend that my patients wear sunscreen on any exposed skin every day and apply it to their kids each morning. It’s advice I heed myself. We don’t leave the house without sun screening up. I’ve found that making it part of our morning routine is a good way to ensure we’re using sunscreen consistently.
Selecting a sunscreen
Using sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to 50 is best. Under 30 isn’t strong enough to prevent DNA damage, while over 50 doesn’t provide much additional protection. An SPF of 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays, an SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent, and an SPF of 50 blocks 99 percent.
In general, there are two broad categories of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens contain zinc and titanium and work by reflecting the sun’s rays away from the skin. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, and octinoxate. They work by absorbing the rays so they don’t reach the skin. Physical sunscreens tend to be more expensive but are less likely to upset sensitive skin.
For those who are in and out of an office building, applying sunscreen once a day is probably enough. However, sunscreens realistically only work two hours during intense sun. I keep tubes in our bag and in every car so we can always put more on.
Some of my patients object to wearing sunscreen because they think it feels greasy or leaves a white residue, but there are some great options on the market that minimize these problems. One of my favorites is Kiss My Face (SPF 30), which I use on my kids. For myself I choose a tinted sunscreen called Cotz because it blends really well. I always encourage patients who haven’t found a sunscreen that works for them to keep trying. It’s too important to give up!
Some people may hesitate to use sunscreens because they are afraid of the ingredients or worried that they are “toxic.” Remember that sunscreens have been used safely for decades. Experts believe that the risk posed by skin cancer is much greater than any potential risks posed by sunscreen products and encourage people to keep using them.
Protecting winter athletes
Skiers and snowboarders can be particularly prone to burns during the winter. UV rays are more intense at higher altitudes. To top it off, snow reflects up to 80 percent of the sun’s rays. Some of the worst burns I got as a teenager happened while I was skiing and before I knew better. Those who enjoy winter sports should carry sunscreen with them and apply it regularly.
Beyond using sunscreen, wearing darker, thicker clothing and choosing materials with sun protection are other ways to keep skin safe during the winter. One of my favorite hacks is to wash clothing in Sun Guard, which permeates fabrics and gives them an SPF protection of 30. (For comparison, a plain white shirt provides only 5 to 7 SPF.) Hats are also essential for keeping rays off the face, no matter the season.
I always encourage patients who haven’t been committed to daily sunscreen use to start today. Sunscreen can’t reverse damage, but it can prevent future damage from occurring—and that’s an important step toward a healthy tomorrow.
Amy Ossian, a physician assistant at Vancouver Clinic–Ridgefield, is passionate about nutrition and sun protection. She believes that the most important part of caring for people is listening to them. By truly hearing what her patients are saying she can more quickly diagnose problems and suggest tailored solutions. Amy and her husband, a former head aerial ski coach for the U.S. Ski Team, have two children and love going to the mountains as a family.