Sunscreen in the Winter—Why You Still Need It

It’s no secret that regular use of sun protection not only exponentially decreases your risk for skin cancer, but will also keep your skin smoother, healthier and younger-looking over time. Yet one of the biggest misconceptions about sunscreen is that it isn’t necessary aside from, say, the beach or pool. When patients ask me whether they need to wear sunscreen during the winter, I always respond with an emphatic “yes.”

First, it’s important to understand the difference between UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays—the kind that penetrate the skin and promote collagen breakdown—remain just as strong throughout the winter months (and even on cloudy days), so they can still cause photodamage and an increased risk of skin cancer. This means that daily use of sunscreen is a must to protect against UVA rays.

Though UVB rays, known as the “burning rays,” tend to be stronger during the hot days of summer, they are capable of causing sunburn any time of year. In fact, the sun’s rays can be up to 80 percent stronger when reflected, and because snow causes a reflection, skiing or sledding—or even being around glass buildings in a metropolitan area—can lead to a sunburn without proper protection.

I recommend a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 for daily use and one with SPF 30 to 50 if you’ll be outdoors. I tell my patients not to be overconfident when using a high SPF and to reapply frequently, especially if the skin gets wet. Since the skin tends to be dryer in the winter (think less humidity and buildings with cranked-up heat that dries out the skin), it’s also important to moisturize regularly, drink lots of water, and invest in a humidifier to keep skin moisturized. Taking an omega-3 supplement daily is also a smart way to keep skin supple.

Windburn can also wreak havoc on already-dry winter skin, as exposure to strong, cold winds can strip the skin of its natural oils and protective moisture barrier. Look for products that contain aloe or hyaluronic acid, which draws moisture to the skin to help restore the lipid barrier.

My best advice: When it comes to sun protection, treat every day like a sunny day. Think of sunscreen as a 365-day-a-year requirement. Your skin—and your health—will thank you.