Each year, over 89,000 Canadians are expected to develop melanoma and skin cancer.
While there is not just one cause of melanoma and skin cancer, excessive sun exposure (especially for those with light-coloured skin, eyes, and hair) is the primary cause of at least 80% of all skin cancer cases. Excessive ultraviolet radiation (UVR) is also a contributing risk factor year-round, not just in the summer.
Don’t let the cold, dark winter days fool you. Even during the harsh Canadian winters, 88% of the sun’s rays still reach the earth’s surface, penetrating dark cloud coverage. To reduce your risk of skin cancer, and protect your skin all year round, it is important to use multiple modes of sun protection.
Even when it’s cold or cloudy outside, the sun’s rays can damage our skin. Additionally, fresh white snow reflects up to 88% of the sun’s UV rays, almost doubling a person’s UV exposure. To protect yourself from UVR, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to all sun-exposed areas of your body. Broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays that cause aging, burns and skin cancer. Look for the term “broad-spectrum” on the label and opt for a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50+.
Even when you’re sitting close to a window at home or on the go in the car, UVA rays penetrate windows and reflect from bright surfaces onto your skin. It’s important to either cover or apply SPF to your hands, neck and face that catch the sun during the winter months. If you spend time outside skiing and hiking during the winter, make sure you reapply your protection every 2 hours.
The skin on your lips is thin, and the circulation of blood is close to the surface, giving them a pink hue. To ensure that your lips are protected from the sun, apply and reapply lip balm with SPF in high-absorption mediums (petroleum-based agents are best) to ensure that the product penetrates the skin on your lips and provides adequate sun protection. In addition to the benefits of adequate sun protection, lip balm in petroleum products can prevent the look and discomfort of dry, cracked lips during the dry winter months.
Wear close-fitting/wraparound sunglasses or goggles with UV 400 or 100% UV protection, especially when participating in winter sports. The sun’s rays reflect off the snow, and protecting your eyes is important any time of day, all year round.
Our skin is the barrier between the outside world and our body, forming an impenetrable membrane that does not allow us to absorb water through the surfaces we touch. That means, in the dry and cold months, the water that exists in the top layers of the skin evaporates, causing dryness and cracking along the mobile joints of our hands, arms and legs. To ensure the overall health of your skin year-round, be sure to end your day with moisturizer on both the sun-exposed areas as well as the covered spots.
The skin on our scalp is vulnerable to the damaging effects of UVR and can be a tricky area to apply SPF to. Consider wearing a hat that will not only keep your head warm but protect the skin on your scalp from sun damage. For those hitting the slopes, where the high altitude makes the sun’s rays even stronger due to the thinner atmosphere, consider wearing a mask or balaclava to protect your face from the sun and wind.
Ensuring you are well protected from the sun will help make the most of the short days in Canadian winter. Be sure to apply and reapply your sunscreen, lip balm and moisturizer, cover up your skin in the cold, and be mindful of UVR reflections on snow. Lastly, continue to monitor the UV index daily, as you do in the summer, to monitor the strength of the winter sun’s rays.
About Dr. Julia Carroll MD FRCPC FAAD
Dr. Julia Carroll MD FRCPC FAAD is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (FRCPC) and an active member of the Canadian Dermatology Association, Toronto Dermatologic Society, American Society of Dermatologic Surgeons and the American Academy of Dermatology. Besides her busy dermatology practice, she is also on staff at the University of Toronto Medical School and is on the Board of Directors at Melanoma Canada.
Follow her on Instagram at instagram.com/drjuliacarroll/