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Why you need to wear sunscreen in winter

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

Don't be misled by the dropping temperature. It's cold outside and you might think that sun protection is for the summer. You can still be exposed to harmful UV rays in the winter. The sun's harmful rays are just as strong and damaging particularly the UVA rays which are responsible for aging skin. UVA radiation reaches deeper into the skin and contributes to wrinkles, age spots and skin cancer risk.

A high SPF sunscreen, preferably with a moisturiser, may help to prevent such sun-related damages. Even though the temperature is cooler, the sun is still powerful, so continue to wear sunscreen with a higher sun protective factor (SPF) having both UVA and UVB protection.

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The number 15, 30, 50 etc. represents the fraction of UV radiation that gets through the product. You just put 1 over the SPF number. So SPF 50 allows 1/50th of the UV light through, SPF 30 allows 1/30th of the UV through and so on. Many cosmetic products include an SPF of 15, and while better than nothing, SPF 15 is no longer regarded as protective enough for anything more than a few minutes in the sun. When choosing a sunscreen product, SPF 30 or higher is Health Canada's recommendation.

It is as easy to get sunburned from the reflected UV from snow and ice as it is on a summer beach. You know you should wear sunglasses in winter to protect your eyes, the same rule applies for your skin. Light bouncing off snow and ice doubles your sun exposure, the closer you are to the ground, the stronger the effect.

Here are a few tips on sunscreen application:

1. I do not recommend chemical based sunscreens (for obvious reasons). I would recommend natural mineral sunscreens (Zinc Oxide based), which means it starts to work the minute you put it on.  

2. Your lips don’t produce melanin AT ALL, so be sure to put some sunscreen on them, or get a lip balm with a SPF of at least 15. Other spots that you may easily miss are your ears.

3. Wear a hat and a scarf to protect your scalp and neck from UV exposure. Statistics show melanomas (a type of skin cancer) of scalp and neck make up 6% of all melanomas, but 10% of all melanoma deaths.

4. Some sunscreens expire, check the date before you apply. Expired means that the product should no longer be expected to achieve the SPF rating stated on the container. Even if the active SPF ingredient is still technically good, changes in the formula over time can make it both ineffective and problematic for skin. Handling of the sunscreen container with dirty hands, or frequent opening and closing can expose the sunscreen to bacteria. As the bacteria grows in the tube, it can cause breakouts.

5. Traditional glass cannot filter away UV. While it blocks UVB, which is what gives you sunburn but also help you produce Vitamin D, 50-60% of UVA, which causes more serious long term damage, still goes through glass. So you will need sun protection if you spend a good amount of time by a sunny window.

A recent Health Canada review of sunscreens has found no new safety concerns, although the federal department found mild to moderate skin reactions can occur in people sensitive to the products' ingredients on rare occasions.

Feel free to ask questions and leave comments. So put on your coat, grab your gloves and don’t forget the sunscreen!


Healthcare Consultant, in4MED

Read FAQs regarding sunscreen use here:


The author of this blog post is a Physician with over 10 years of experience working in the healthcare system as a clinician, researcher and educator. She is passionate about healthcare for older adults and strives to be a resourceful inspiration to caregivers.

*No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare professional.

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