Watch That Winter Sun
High altitudes put skiers, snowboarders at increased risk of skin damage
FRIDAY, Jan. 18, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Icarus failed to heed warnings about getting too close to the sun, and paid dearly for it when the wax in his wings melted.
If you're a skier or snowboarder hitting the slopes this winter, don't make the same mistake.
Sure, the only wax you use is on your skis. However, the higher up the mountain you go, the more you're exposed to harmful ultraviolet (UV) light. Experts say you must use sunscreen and take other measures to protect yourself, or you could increase your risk for skin cancer.
"As you increase in altitude, you increase your ultraviolet light exposure," cautions Dr. Susan Boiko, partner physician with Southern California Permanente Medical Group in San Diego.
Earth's atmosphere filters 4 percent fewer UV rays for every 1,000 feet above sea level. Many ski resorts in North America and Europe are at or above 5,000 feet, a point where there is 20 percent more UV radiation than there is at sea level. Add to that the fact that the increase in UV rays at high altitudes becomes even more dangerous as it reflects off the snow.
"At the top of the mountain, for someone who easily burns, it would only take eight or 10 minutes to get a burn," Boiko says.
Imagine the threat to enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders, who often spend six or seven hours a day on the slopes.
"I think people feel that because the weather is cold, they won't get any damage from the sun. They associate danger with the sun from warmer weather -- sunbathing and skimpy bathing suits," says Boiko.
In addition, don't think you're safe just because it's cloudy. The UV light still filters through, says dermatology expert Noreen Nicol, chief clinical officer at the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver.
"When the sun is intense, people tend to think about their sunscreen because they can actively feel the burn and the heat. But on cloudy days on the ski slopes, I think people are probably less aware, until the end of the day has come along and, all of sudden, they realize they have got a great deal of exposure and have a substantial burn," Nicol says.
Although most of your body is covered with warm clothing, your face and other parts of your head are vulnerable to sun damage. Boiko recommends you use a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF. In cold conditions, she suggests a sunscreen that is greasy or waxy and will stick to your skin. Reapply the sunscreen every two hours.
Nicol adds you should also apply the sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you actually strap on the boards.
If you can tolerate the feel and look, you may consider using physical blocker sunscreens, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, Nicol says. ALthough they may feel pasty and detract from your heroic ski visage, they do provide better protection than the more common chemical sunscreens.
Wear a hat, and make sure sunscreen, scarf or other clothing protects the back of your neck.
Buy goggles that offer the highest UV protection for your eyes.
"You want to pick a style that is as large as is comfortable for your face, because the more area that's covered the better," Boiko adds.
"You're not only blocking the light from getting in your eyes and causing cataracts, but you're blocking it from your eyelids and the sides of your cheeks. These are common locations for skin cancer," Boiko says.
Last but not least, don't forget sunscreen protection and good goggles for your children, Boiko adds.
What To Do
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Last year, the American Cancer Society says, more than 1 million new cases would be diagnosed, and about 9,800 people would die from skin cancer.