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Winter is here, and for many of us in the Nevada area, it means participating in all the great outdoor activities. Whether you are skiing, snowboarding, sledding, ice skating, snowmobiling, or just hanging around outside enjoying a cup of cocoa, it is essential to take care of your health to enjoy the season fully. This includes your skin’s health, which gets affected quite a bit by the colder temperatures, windy conditions, and the winter sun. We got together with Dr. Michael Zumwalt, a Board-Certified Dermatologist and Fellowship-Trained Mohs Surgeon with Skin Cancer & Dermatology Institute, to get tips for protecting your skin during these winter months.

Q: The day is cloudy; do I still need to wear sunscreen?

A: Yes! To understand how cloud cover affects sun exposure intensity, you need to know what makes up the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. The two major portions of the UV spectrum are UVA and UVB. The UVB portion of the spectrum is shorter in wavelength and can only penetrate the top layer of the skin called the epidermis. UVB is responsible for causing sunburns and is a key player in the development of skin cancer. Due to its short wavelength, most UVB is blocked by clouds on densely overcast days. 


UVA, on the other hand, is longer in wavelength than UVB. This causes it to penetrate deeper layers of the skin called the dermis. The dermis, aka the foundation/structural integrity of our skin, is primarily damaged by the UVA portion of the UV spectrum. This damage to the dermis by UVA is what causes photodamage to the skin leading to fine lines and wrinkles. UVA damage also contributes to the development of skin cancer. UVA’s longer wavelength allows it to pass through heavy cloud cover with minimal abatement.

So, in short, although you are less likely to burn on a cloudy day due to decreased UVB, it is still essential to protect yourself from the photodamaging UVA rays that easily penetrate cloud cover. It is best to always use sunscreen that protects you from both UVA and UVB rays with an SPF of 30 or greater, regardless of the weather conditions. There are so many products out there, so use one that you feel comfortable using and wearing all day. Start your day applying it over all the skin that isn’t covered by clothing. Then carry one with you when you go to the slopes. You will need to reapply throughout the day.


Q: My face and lips become so red and dry when I’m outdoors during the winter; how can I prevent that?

A: This phenomenon is known as “windburn,” which is red, inflamed skin that can be painful when exposed to the cold, blustery winter air. This can occur when walking/exercising for extended periods outside during the winter. It can commonly occur while skiing due to the especially cold and windy conditions up in the mountains. During the winter, the relative humidity lowers, and the cold, dry air rushing past your face causes the skin to dry out, impairing the skin’s barrier function. The result is dry, flaky, and irritated skin.

The best way to protect yourself from windburn is to use a physical barrier and pre-moisturize with a thicker cream. This is partly why during the winter, you see many people walking on the street with scarves to protect their faces on cold, windy days. While skiing, I like using a polyester fishing-style neck gaiter which protects my face from windburn but is still very light and breathable, especially on warmer ski days. If you are prone to your face drying out on cold days and you use a lotion as your daily facial moisturizer, I recommend using a thicker hand-cream moisturizer for your face if you’re going to be exercising outside in cold weather that day.


Q: Which skincare essentials should I carry with me?

A: Protect your lower face with a baklava or neck gaiter while out on the slopes. Always carry sunscreen, as you must reapply it multiple times a day. Sunscreen typically is only effective for about 2 hours, so frequent application is key. While skiing, I typically carry a sunscreen lotion that is light and easy-to-apply, as it allows me to reapply without interrupting my favorite activity. It is also essential to bring an SPF lip balm as the lips are particularly vulnerable to the sun. Lips produce very little melanin (pigment), making them burn easier than the rest of your skin. Carrying a small, sample-sized, thick moisturizer is also a must-have. Lastly, don’t forget to protect your eyes from the sun’s rays. Use goggles and sunglasses with UV protection.


Q: Are hot showers or baths good for your skin after a long day in the snow?

A: Hot showers should be avoided, especially after exposure to cold weather. Hot showers can disrupt the water-tight boundary layer of the skin comprised of keratinocytes and lipids. Disruption of this important layer leads to dry skin prone to eczema flares. I recommend applying moisturizer to your body after your shower, as it is a great way to keep your skin hydrated.


About the Dermatology Provider

Dr. Michael Zumwalt is a Fellowship-Trained Mohs Surgeon and Board-Certified Dermatologist working at Skin Cancer & Dermatology Institute’s Carson City location. He is passionate about using his expertise to help his patients treat skin cancers. When he is not at work, he spends time with his family skiing, mountain biking, hiking, camping, and enjoying other outdoor activities.

You can book an appointment online at SkinCancerDerm.com.


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