Yes, You Actually Do Still Need to Wear Sunscreen in the Winter

do you need to wear sunscreen in the winter woman smiling

I’ve discovered the world’s most effective anti-aging cream: It’s called sunscreen, and derms swear up and down by the stuff. Sunscreen thwarts UV rays, which unequivocally cause premature skin aging. Better yet: you can snag a tube of sunscreen at virtually any drugstore — for less than the cost of an airport salad!

Facetiousness aside, sunscreen is the single most effective product for keeping your skin looking pristine. If any other cream drummed up as much acclaim from dermatologists, it would undoubtedly fly off the shelves! (Sun damage causes a whopping 90 — yes, nine-zero — percent of skin aging.) Yet, a feeble 15 percent of American women use sunscreen 365 days a year, and only 4 percent of men, according to data from RealSelf’s® 2019 Sun Safety ReportTM. In my observations, an “occasional” sunscreen user is someone who only applies sunscreen when they perceive a risk for getting a sunburn, usually in the summer months. 

When researching for this piece, I chatted with a smattering of “occasional” sunscreen users from around the country, many of whom are skincare buffs themselves. I asked them why they didn’t wear sunscreen 365 days a year, and their answers were variations on a theme. “Unless I’m worried about actually getting a sunburn on the beach or on vacation somewhere hot, I don’t prioritize sunscreen in my daily routine,” says Jaclyn, a PhD student living in Los Angeles. The 26-year-old admits that she knows she should be wearing it daily — “but it feels so greasy on my skin.” (Shop these non-greasy formulas.) Like Jaclyn, others said that they apply sunscreen only when they perceive a risk for getting burned (i.e. in the summer, on the beach, etc.). 

But here’s the truth: If you care about protecting your skin from untimely aging, you absolutely must wear sunscreen in the winter, too. Just because you’re not burning does not mean that you’re safe from damage. According to Connecticut-based board-certified dermatologist, Mona Gohara, MD, “If you can see your hand in front of your face, then there is enough UV light to cause [skin] damage.” This means that any day of the year during daylight hours — summer, winter, or otherwise — presents opportunities for skin aging UV damage. 

To fully appreciate why you need to wear sunscreen in the winter, particularly as it relates to anti-aging, it’s crucial to understand UV rays. There are two main types: UVA and UVB. UVB rays are responsible for sunburns. (They can both cause skin cancer.) Clouds can soften the blow of UVB rays, which explains why you’re less likely to burn on an overcast day in the winter than on a clear day in the summer. 

UVA rays are more pernicious; they generally do not cause sunburns, but they can seriously accelerate skin aging. UVA wavelengths are long enough to bypass the outermost layer of skin (the epidermis) and reach the mid layer (the dermis). This mid layer happens to contain your skin’s supply of collagen and elastin — the proteins that keep skin firm and youthful-looking. Over time, UVA rays literally break down these proteins, ultimately causing skin to sag and wrinkle. 

Another unsettling fact: the strength of UVA rays remains constant throughout the year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundationsm. Unlike UVB rays, they can also penetrate clouds — so a gloomy winter day doesn’t offer protection from UVA’s collagen-clobbering effects. To an extent, neither does sitting indoors. “UVA light comes right through glass windows,” warns New Jersey-based board-certified dermatologist Rebecca Baxt, MD. “[So], when people don't use sunscreen in the winter, they end up getting lots of sun exposure and damage they are not aware of.” 

Other seemingly benign activities — unloading the groceries, walking the dog — also expose you to UVA damage. This damage is cumulative; even the smallest doses of unprotected UVA exposure add up, eventually manifesting as lines, wrinkles, and sun spots. Dr. Baxt says much of the sun damage she sees is from the culmination of these types of incidental sun exposure. Winter, in all its UVA-filled glory, is primetime for accruing these exposures. 

Lastly, it’s worth noting that snowy scenarios are particularly rife with sun damage risk. “Snow is highly reflective!” points out Colorado-based board-certified dermatologist Karen Nern, MD. “It can reflect 80 percent of UV rays.” For this reason, she says that skiers, in particular — who are also physically closer to the sun and have less atmospheric protection — should practice utmost diligence with sunblock. 

In focusing on the skin aging effects of UVA rays, I will note that I’ve eschewed the more important, serious side of sun damage. Skin cancer, of course, is a massive problem. However, I’ll be the first to admit that I started wearing sunscreen year-round, not as a means of skin cancer prevention, but to maintain a plump, smooth complexion. In retrospect, I’m grateful for the spark of vanity that spurred me to become a sunscreen zealot: I’ve since learned that daily sunscreen application cuts the risk for melanoma — the number one most diagnosed cancer among women ages 25 to 30 — in half. 

To everyone who skips sunscreen because it’s “too greasy,” try Bioré® UV Aqua RichTM Watery Essence ($15) — a K-Beauty cult classic that dries down sans residue. (Then, read about why Korean sunscreen formulas are in a class of their own.) If it’s the prospect of adding an additional step to your routine that’s keeping you from applying SPF, consider a moisturizer/sunscreen hybrid. I’m loving the Supergoop!® Sunscreen Daily Moisturizer ($38), a rich cream that simultaneously softens my winter-worn skin and protects against aging UVA rays. Makeup primers with SPF are another 2-in-1 option for the time-strapped; try the beautyblender® Selfie ShieldTM ($32), a dry oil, SPF-spiked primer beloved by Spotlyte’sTM senior beauty editor, Emily Orofino.

So, to all of the “occasional” sunscreen users: let’s make sunscreen application as quotidian as brushing your teeth. I promise your skin will reward you with prolonged bounciness and youthful smoothness. And, god forbid you’re prone to skin cancer, a year-round sunscreen habit might just save your life.

Doctors Mona Gohara and Karen Nern are paid Allergan® consultants.

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