Sunscreen in Winter?

Woman putting on sunscreen in winter

When it comes to skin cancer, prevention is ALWAYS the best treatment! Learn more below about why the risks of skin cancer don’t go away during the winter months and the importance of wearing sunscreen year-round with these frequently asked questions.

Q: I donʼt get sun in winter, so why do I need to wear sunscreen?

A: Many people mistakingly think sunscreen is not needed during winter months. This myth is outdated, just like the belief that tanning with baby oil was good for our health. Although it is true that the intensity of UVB decreases in winter, UVA fluctuates minimally and is a major component of the sunʼs longer winter wavelengths. Therefore, the vast majority of UV exposure throughout the calendar year (and throughout your entire life) is UVA, which contributes to skin cancer and premature aging. You are exposed to UVA every time you walk outside to your mailbox, drive your car, or sit next to a window, even on a cloudy day. UVA penetrates through clouds and also window glass (think how the word glass has an A in the middle of it).

Q: What kind of sunscreen do I need in winter?

A: One that is “broad spectrum” and protects against UVA. Years ago we believed that UVB was the only culprit behind aging and cancer; therefore, the early generation of sunscreens protected against UVB only. Now scientific evidence has proven that UVA is dangerous and causes cancer as well. This leads to the development of different chemicals that also block UVA. You do not have to start memorizing the alphabet soup of odd chemical names to make sure you are getting appropriate protection.

The Food & Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) regulations require sunscreen labeling. Products labelled “broad spectrum” are required to contain chemical or physical agents that protect you from both UVA and UVB. At Clear Dermatology, we usually recommend use of a daily facial moisturizer with an SPF of 30 or higher to be applied every morning before you ever leave your house. Physical blocking agents such as zinc and titanium are better than the chemical blockers (ones that have an SPF number) because they block every wavelength. However, many people do not like the white pale appearance that the particles leave on their skin. Luckily, new products now exist that minimize this undesired complexion change by creating smaller zinc particle sizes, such as EltaMD sunscreen products. EltaMD products are available for purchase in our office.

Q: I heard that vitamin D levels are usually lower in winter. Will wearing sunscreen affect my vitamin D levels?

A: Luckily, we live in Houston, which is located at 29.7 degrees latitude. Individuals living South of 35 degrees North latitude (which is everybody in Texas, South of Amarillo) do not ever stop producing vitamin D, even during the winter. We actually still get a significant amount of UVB—the wavelength responsible for vitamin D production—throughout the year.

To address the specific issue of vitamin D and sunscreen, the American Academy of Dermatology released a position statement in 2008-2009. To summarize, the standpoint of dermatologists is that UV exposure is a risk factor for the development of skin cancer. There is no scientifically proven safe threshold level of UV exposure that allows for maximal vitamin D synthesis without increasing skin cancer risk. Therefore, sunscreen and sun protection (hats, long-sleeve shirts, pants) are recommended for everyone. If vitamin D deficiency is a concern, vitamin D supplements are recommended. The current US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines suggest a daily total dose of 1000 IU (International Units) of vitamin D for adults and 400 IU daily for children. If you are concerned that your vitamin D level is low, a simple blood test can be done.

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