UVR Protection at the Snow

Why be SunSmart at the snow?

A bad case of sunburn will ruin anyone’s weekend or holiday at the snow. What many alpine visitors don’t realise is that it is still possible to get burnt while at the snow, even though conditions may be cold.

The risk of sunburn (or skin damage) is much greater in alpine regions than at sea level due to the thinner atmosphere and cleaner air which are not as effective at filtering out the sun’s dangerous UV radiation. People may also develop a false sense of protection due to the cooler climate experienced in alpine areas and hence not adopt appropriate sun protection behaviour.

Ultraviolet radiation levels increase by 10-12% with every 1000 meter increase in altitude. This means that at an altitude of say 2,000 metres (eg. Thredbo Village is 1,370m, Mt Perisher is 2,054 and Mt Kosciusko is 2,228m) UV levels can be as much as 15-30 per cent higher than at sea level. (Canberra is 605 meters above sea level).

Snow is also very reflective and can reflect as much as 80% of UV radiation reaching its surface. So UV rays are not just reaching your skin directly but also indirectly as it is reflected and scattered off the snow and burns those exposed areas of the skin like under your chin, face and nose. UV radiation (up to 90%) can penetrate light cloud cover, whilst a scattered cloud effect can actually enhance UV levels during certain periods.

While sunburn is initially painful and uncomfortable it can also cause long term skin damage such as wrinkling, blotchiness and premature ageing. Sunburn is also a clear indicator of over-exposure to UV radiation which causes skin cancer, melanoma and short and long term eye damage and so it is important to take precautions when outdoors whether it be at the beach or at the snow. The more your exposed to UV radiation the greater your risk of developing skin cancer and eye damage.

Protect your skin

Most ski gear is already designed to protect your body from the elements (which will offer good sun protection too), the important issue here is to not forget about those other areas that may not have the same level of protection from the elements. Ie ears, neck, head and nose. This is particularly important during Spring skiing as temperature are starting to rise and potentially more skin is exposed, eg arms!

A few simple tips to minimise your risk of skin damage whilst enjoying the snow include:

  • dont overdo it it during the middle of the day, especially when it is sunny or light cloud cover. Plan indoor breaks and shade yourself from the direct sun during this time of the day if you can.
  • keep your head covered with a balaclava or a beanie with flaps to cover your ears
  • apply a generous quantity of water-resistant broad-spectrum SPF 30+ sunscreen to those exposed parts 15-20 minutes before you go out onto the snow. Parts should include your hands (if your not wearing gloves), neck, face, ears and under your chin. Applying sunscreen before going outdoors will give your skin time to absorb the cream. Remember to carry a small tube of sunscreen in a pocket or bumbag, so you can reapply regularly- say every 2 hours.
  • in the cold alpine conditions it is common for lips to become dry, cracked and sunburnt. To avoid lip damage from UV rays, use an SPF 30+ lip balm and reapply regularly.
  • during Spring skiing UV levels will be on the increase plus you may experience more warmer sunny days- which may lead to more exposed skin. Be sure to take extra care during this period.
  • many people confuse sunburn with windburn. Windburn occurs when strong winds strip the skin’s natural oils. Whilst windburnt skin may appear red and irritated, much like the effects of sunburn, windburn does not cause long term cell damage which can lead to skin cancer. The moisturisers in sunscreens and lip balms can help relieve the effects of windburn.

Always protect your eyes

Snow blindness-or sunburn on the surface of the eye is a real risk at the snow. The condition is usually temporary and may only last a few days, but it can be very painful and can contribute to long-term eye damage, such as cataracts.

To protect your eyes from glare and UV radiation:

  • wear wrap-around close fitting goggles or sunglasses. Make sure they meet Australian Standard 1067
  • if you wear prescription glasses, talk to your optometrist about prescription lenses fitted in your sunglasses or goggles. Alternatively you may chose to wear a good fitting set of ‘fitover’ sunglasses.

Protecting children at the snow

Research suggests that over-exposure to the sun’s UV radiation during the first 10-20 years of life can greatly increase a child’s risk of developing skin cancer in later life, including melanoma. It is vital that young kids protect their skin whilst at the snow.

  • apply at least an SPF 30, broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen liberally to exposed skin 15-20 minutes before going outside. Give your children small tubes of sunscreen and lip balm so they can reapply throughout the day, every 2 hours or more often is washed, wiped or sweated off.
  • ensure children’s eyes are well protected by good quality goggles or sunglasses. For safety, children’s eyewear should have plastic (not glass) lenses. Eyewear for children and teenagers should meet the Australian Standard AS 1067. Toy and/or fashion eyewear (Catagory 0 and 1) will not provide suitable protection against UVR and should be avoided. Look for sunglasses that are catagorised 2 and above. These sunglasses will absorb more than 95% of UV radiation. Sunglasses which are marked eye protection factor (EPF) 9 or 10 exceed the Australian Standard and transmit almost no UV radiation.
  • certain sunglasses and goggles have “polarized lenses”- these should be seen as an added bonus as they will reduce glare which is important around reflective surfaces such as snow as it will increase your visibility. However they do not offer added protection against UV radiation.
  • if the weather is warming up be sure your children continue to wear long sleevs and high necklines - a closely woven fabric will offer best protection against UV radiation. Headwear should protect the face, neck and ears. Take particular care during the middle of the day.
  • and finally, parents are encouraged to act as positive role models. Actions speak louder than words plus increased sun protection against sun exposure can prevent skin cancer at whatever age it is applied.

Further information

SunSmart UV Alerts

If planning a trip to the snow, make sure you and your family familiarise yourself with the SunSmart UV Index. The SunSmart UV Index displays the time of the day when UV levels reach 3 and above (known as a UV Alert), strong enough to damage unprotected skin. When UV levels are 3 and above protect yourself from UV damage by adobting a combination of the 5 sun protection measures. Slip on sensible clothing, slop on at least an SPF 30 sunscreen (and a lip balm with an SPF), slap on a hat, seek shade when you can and slide on sunnies.

To view a list of locations, including Thredbo Village and Perisher Valley visit www.bom.gov.au/nsw/uv/index.shtml. For easy access why not download the free SunSmart App to your SmartPhone.

Further information and resources

This information is based on current available evidence at the time of review. For further information and advice contact Cancer Council 13 11 20.

This information can be photocopied for distribution.

Last updated July 2013.

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