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Yes, you still need sunscreen in winter

3 minute read
Woman feeling the sun in the winter

The sun’s rays can damage your skin even when the weather turns cold. Learn why slathering on SPF is a key habit 365 days a year.

Jessica Sebor

By Jessica Sebor

You stocked up on sunscreen in June and used it all summer long. That’s a great health habit. But don’t put it away now that the cold weather is here. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can still damage your skin in winter, and you need to protect yourself.

You should use sunscreen every day of the year, says the American Academy of Dermatology. Learn why 365-day protection is vital — and how you can make it a daily habit that sticks.

Why sunscreen is key

The sun’s damaging UV rays can reach your exposed skin on cloudy and cool days. And UV rays can reflect off water, snow, ice and cement, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Putting sunscreen on your face, ears and other exposed skin is your best defense against those harmful rays. Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher and the words “broad spectrum” on the label.

“First and foremost, sunscreen protects against skin cancer — including basal cells, squamous cells and melanoma,” says Marie Leger, MD. She’s a dermatologist at Entière Dermatology in New York City. “I can’t stress how important this is.”

The Optum Store carries a variety of sunscreens to fit your needs.

Daily sunscreen use can reduce your risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 40%, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. That’s a form of skin cancer found in the upper layer of your skin. Slathering on sunscreen every day can also cut your risk of melanoma in half. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer. And it can be deadly if it spreads.

The people with the highest risk of skin cancer are those who live at high altitudes, those who do a lot of outdoor activities in the winter and people with light-colored eyes and hair. “For example, I just spent a year working in Reno, Nevada,” says Dr. Leger. “I would often see between 10 and 20 skin cancers in my active patients weekly.”

Over time, exposure to UV rays can damage collagen and elastin. Those are the proteins that keep your skin plump and firm. Wearing sunscreen protects not only against skin cancer but against signs of aging, such as:

  • Wrinkles
  • Photoaging
  • Fine lines
  • Age spots
  • Uneven skin tone
  • Loose skin

Remember sunscreen for snow sports

Tempted to blow off sunscreen before heading out in the cold weather? Don’t do it. The UV index might be slightly lower in winter, but it’s still significant.

It’s especially important to wear sunscreen for snow sports. If you’ve ever been skiing all day without sunscreen, you know that you can still get burned. And it can happen even if the temperature is well below freezing.

In fact, skiing (or doing any snow sport) might put you at a higher risk of sun damage because UV rays can reflect off the snow and ice, increasing your exposure.

Create a daily habit

The best advice when it comes to sunscreen use is to make it part of your morning routine. “I tell people it should be a habit,” says dermatologist Laurie J. Levine, MD. She is ProHealth’s chair of dermatology in Lake Success, New York. You wash your face every day — so apply daily sunscreen, too.

There are many kinds of sunscreen on the drugstore shelves. But Dr. Leger says not to stress about your options. “Any sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection and an SPF of 30 or higher is a good choice.” The best sunscreen is the one you’re going to use consistently.

People with sensitive skin may prefer tinted sunscreens. These use minerals such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to create a physical barrier from the sun. They go on smoothly and give your skin a subtle glow. You can also try chemical sunscreens, which absorb or reflect UV rays.

It’s important to reapply your sunscreen throughout the day. If you’re going to be in the sun, try to put more on every couple of hours. Sunscreen sticks and powders are great for this. They’re easy to slather on in the middle of a busy day.

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Additional sources
When to wear SPF: American Academy of Dermatology (n.d.) “Sunscreen FAQs”
Sun’s rays: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). “Sun safety”
Risk of cancer: Skin Cancer Foundation (2022). “All About Sunscreen”