Sunburned by the Snow: ‘Tis the Season to Sunscreen Up

March 26, 2018

Winter snow lingers into spring in locations across the Northeast. The sun rises higher in the sky with each passing day. And if you’re outside reveling in it all, the underside of your face is about to get some serious UV exposure. Time to slather up with some quality sunscreen—and make sure you apply it to places you might usually neglect.

When you’re outside in the snow on a bright, sunshiny spring day you are getting a double-dose of sun exposure. First as the sun beams its UV rays down upon you and then again when the majority of those UV rays reflect off the snow and hit you from below. Snow is one of the most reflective surfaces there is for UV, bouncing back up to 80 percent of the UV rays that hit it. This includes both UVB rays, which cause sunburn; and UVA rays, which cause premature aging of the skin. (Need a reminder of how UVA can affect your face? Check out this photo.)

So even if you were wearing a giant sombrero that blocked your entire head from the sun above, you would still be getting a substantial dose of reflected UV from below. This reflected UV also hits parts of your body—the underside of your nose and chin especially—that seldom otherwise receive a direct hit of UV. So not only are you getting a double-dose of harmful rays, you’re exposing more of your body to them.

The solution of course is to use a quality, long-lasting sunscreen that protects from both UVA and UVB rays. As a reminder, the sun protection factor (SPF) listed on sunscreens only refers to UVB rays. To get full coverage from both, you’ll need to purchase a sunscreen that also blocks UVA. Read the label carefully to ensure that this is the case; sunscreens that are effective against both UVA and UVB will be listed as “broad spectrum” sunscreens.

Of the sunscreens that block UVA, some use physical blockers like zinc oxide (such as Dermatone’s classic Z Cote), while others use chemical blockers to achieve the same affect. (Physical blockers tend to last longer between applications.) To browse the latest offerings, check out the latest version of the Environmental Working Group’s  sunscreen guide.

When applying sunscreen, make sure you cover the underside of your chin, ears, and nose (experience has taught me burned nostril are really unpleasant!). And make sure you reapply frequently throughout the day to keep your skin happy, healthy, and free from UV damage this spring season. Finally, complete your sun protection with some UV-blocking lip balm and a pair of dark sunglasses to shield your eyes from the beaming spring sun.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.