Is the sun safer in the winter?


Winter is quickly approaching, and we can finally ease up on worrying about sunburn and skin cancer and ditch the sunscreen. Or so we thought.

Just because the days are growing cooler and the sun seems hidden behind the clouds does not mean our skin is safer from the damaging effects of the sun.

When winter comes, people often forget that there is still sun. The truth is, as long it’s day time, up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can filter through the thickest cloud cover. So while we don’t feel the sun’s heat this season, nothing has changed: the skin can still get UV-related sun damage in the winter, and we should still be wary of the sun’s effects on our skin.

Sun Damage and Skin Cancer in the Winter

Skin cancer risks fluctuate from season to season. While summer does offer some of the strongest sun rays of the year, that doesn’t mean that winter is a time to stop using protection. Radiation can still bounce off the clouds, making them more focused and more risky, even when temperatures dip.

Allowing the sun (even the winter sun) to penetrate the skin can cause damage to skin cells. Over time, those cells may find it harder to rejuvenate. Eventually, this type of UV damage will change the structure of the cells and how they work, and this may result in skin cancer.

Since too many people fall for the myth that clouds help protect them from the sun, they may actually increase their risk of skin cancer during the winter months. Canstar Cannex (via My Body + Soul) reveals less than 20% of the Australians wear sunscreen during winter. In addition, the extra clothing worn this time of year can make detection harder if you aren’t taking the time to look for suspicious spots and moles, regardless of the weather outside.

The Sun Doesn’t Go Away in the Winter

The days may seem darker during the winter time, but the sun is still there, radiating UV rays. You can’t see or feel UV radiation, which is one of the reasons why people equate the warmth of summer with them. What many people do not realise is that the three basic types of UV rays (UVB, UVA, UVC), can cause skin damage during any time of the year if they are strong enough.

But how do you know when those rays are dangerous? The temperature outside can’t tell you; nor can the amount of sunshine seen. The most efficient way to gauge the strength of the UV rays at any given time is through the UV Index.

This international scale ranges from 1 to 20 (with levels three and above considered dangerous to the skin). To see Australia’s UV risk in real time, check out the index offered by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency here.

Cloud Cover and UV Radiation

A cloudy day can be misleading. According to Vernon Carr, national manager of public weather services at the Bureau of Meteorology, in an interview with ABC Science,

A lot of people think that if it's a hot day they're going to get a lot of UV so they need to use sunscreen, but on a cold day they'll be okay. It doesn't work like that. UV radiation's got nothing to do whatsoever with the temperature.

UV is affected by many things. One of those is cloud, but it depends upon what type of cloud it is, the thickness of the cloud and whether it is deep right through the atmosphere. UV radiation can penetrate through thin cloud, so you can still get high levels of UV at ground level on overcast days.

Radiation can bounce off the sides of the clouds, becoming more focused, so we must still be careful when outside, even on a cloudy winter day.

Keeping Your Skin Safe during Winter

Sure, staying out of the sun may be the best way to prevent skin cancer, but who wants to hide indoors all day? It’s always good to enjoy the outdoors, but that does not mean that you have to put yourself at risk. Below are some tips you can apply to avoid damaging your skin:

  • Wear sunscreen at all times — no matter the time of day or time of year.

  • Wear a hat, sunglasses, and long sleeves.

  • Stay out of the direct sun during peak UV ray hours (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.).

  • Check your skin regularly for odd spots, and don’t ignore any skin changes. Use this article as your guide to do self-checks.

  • If you notice any spots or moles that concern you, visit your doctor or specialist for further assessment.

What to Do About Odd Skin Spots

You are diligent about checking your skin for unusual spots, lesions, or moles and have noticed something new — what do you do now? First, don’t panic. Not every new spot or mark on your skin signifies cancer. Some of those spots come with normal ageing.

The key is to understand the risk factors involved, perform self-examinations regularly, and know the red flags. If you determined that you are a high-risk person or you’ve found some red flags, visit your GP for further examination.

Spot It to Stop It: Early Detection Is Vital

Detecting skin cancer early is the key to a successful treatment. So whether the sun is out or not, whether it’s summer or winter, it pays to be aware of the signs of skin cancer — because the sun and its harmful rays don’t take a sabbatical on winter season.

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