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Winter is an icy grayed out old man that everyone thinks is harmless, dull, and pale, but little do we know that his polar-white beards and frail body, only belie the unsheathed, blood stained sword he carries around. The sun is up all season and all year and even though the days are short, and the heat sensation of the sun on the skin feels like a long forgotten memory, the sun is still very much out there, causing havoc with every exposure. The barren skies, reduced outdoor activities and heavy winter clothing gives winter a free pass on sun protection, but unknown to us, ultraviolet rays from the sun are quite penetrative and our face which is mostly exposed in winter, is quite sensitive and more prone to sun damage. With 10% of deaths from skin cancer originating in the head and neck area, it becomes very important that we use sunscreen all year round.
During the summer months, sunscreen is at the forefront of our minds, but when winter sets in, we stow them away and forget they ever existed. Your skin protection regime may be seasonal, but the sun sure doesn’t take a break in emitting harmful rays. The sun emits three types of ultraviolet rays; UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. These rays are classified according to wavelengths, and also have different biological activities. The shorter the wavelength, the more dangerous, and the longer the wavelength, the more penetrative it is, to the atmosphere and the deep layers of the skin. UV-C which has the shortest wavelength is the most dangerous, and you won’t be reading this if not because it’s always filtered by the ozone layer which prevents it from reaching the earth surface. This is something we should always thank God for.
The UV-B rays, which is sometimes called the sun burn ray (causes sun burn and skin cancer), wanes in its intensity during winter, which is why we don’t or very rarely get sun burn during winter. Great news you think? But what we don’t realize is that not getting sun burned doesn’t warn us or tell us whether we’ve gotten too much exposure to the sun; exposure which is largely dominated by the longer wavelength, UV-A rays. Even though the effect of the sun is not as much as the summer months, UV-A rays are present all day and all year long. So while it’s mostly overcast and the cold winter breeze sets in, you are still getting the same doses of UV-A that you would get on a hot sunny day. This means that, sun rise or sun set, December or July, you’re still getting the same amount of harmful UV-A rays. Due to the longer wavelength of the UV-A it penetrates the clouds more, and penetrates the skin at a deeper level. It destroys the structural integrity of the skin, damaging collagen and elastin, and thus leads to premature skin aging, wrinkling, and other skin conditions such as melasma, lentigos, rosacea, hyperpigmentation, and ultimately skin cancer. The scary thing is that the damage is not only cumulative but also irreversible. A drive to a friend’s place, a visit to the slopes, time used clearing snow off your porch, all add up to increase your sun exposure. So it becomes important to use sunscreen, particularly the broad spectrum type that offers protection to both UVB and UVA rays.
Winter conditions are harsh, and this is made worse by the fact that the ozone layer which acts as the earth’s sun shield is at its thinnest during winter, and becomes no longer efficient in absorbing and preventing harmful UV rays from reaching the earth’s surface. So even though it’s cold outside and the intensity of the sun is low, there’s actually more harmful UV rays hitting the earth surface. With the decrease in temperature, the skin is in constant battle for moisture and without proper care it becomes chapped, flaky and dry. Not to forget wind burn and sun burn that leaves your skin irritated and agitated. The harsh winter conditions gets your skin broken, which then becomes a buffet for infections, and this is made worse when you couple this with the fact that your skin then becomes the perfect airfield for UV rays. UV radiation is bad enough on a healthy skin; you can then imagine its effect on a dry and broken skin. It then becomes a no-brainer to advocate the use of sunscreen, as not only does it protects you from the damaging effects of the sun, it also acts as a moisturizer that prevents your skin from getting dry and flaky. Sun screen also protects you from the screeching winds and the particles that come with it, thus acting as a physical barrier that protects you from microscopic abrasions that leave your skin vulnerable.
While some might argue that they’re mostly indoors and don’t get to be outdoor that much, they should realize that UV-A rays are next to ubiquitous and present virtually everywhere. While you’re driving, UV-A still penetrates the glass, and this is why many old people have more wrinkles on the left side of their face. Most glass materials only block out UV-B rays, so you can be certain you’re getting UV-A rays in the right doses even when you’re just enjoying the view from your cozy room or your sun filled office with the fabulous view. Just in case you’re not convinced enough and you’re sort of like a vampire during the winter period that never sees the light, you should realize that the sun is not the only source of harmful rays. Low levels of UV radiation, ambient and infrared rays emitted from fluorescent lights, computer screens, and phone screens, accumulate to damage your skin. So even if you’re going to be indoors virtually all through winter, these are enough reasons to use sunscreen and protect your skin. And for the winter sport enthusiast, they should realize that for every 1,000 feet above sea level, UV radiation exposure increases by 4-5%. So with higher altitude comes higher exposure to harmful UV rays. More frightening fact is that snow reflects up to 80% of UV radiation, which is more than the amount reflected by water and beach sand.
The sad truth is that cancer and other related sun damage disorders don’t go on winter breaks and the skin doesn’t put into consideration what season you’re getting exposed, it just accumulates your total sun exposure and manifests into undesirable outcomes. With 90% of skin cancer being associated with sun exposure, it becomes ultimately necessary that we protect our skin with sunscreen regardless of the season. Finally, you need not search for the fountain of youth, since all you need is in a product that doesn’t require a voyage to acquire. Sunscreen is not only affordable, it has been proven to protect the skin from early signs of aging, wrinkles and freckles development. This is also supported by a journal published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which concluded that wearing sunscreen can slow the aging process by 24%. So you want to look young and stay healthy? Use sunscreen all year round.