When it’s cold and overcast, it’s easy to think of winter as a time of chapped skin and frostbite and forget about the sunscreen. In Vermont we never let a little snow stop us from having a good time, and winter conditions make this season a vital time to stay diligent about sun protection.

Do you like to play in the snow?

Whether or not you can see the sun, protection from the sun’s harmful rays is vital. Even on a cloudy day up to 80% of UV radiation makes it through to Earth.1 On the slopes, higher elevation leads to increased sun exposure. UV intensity increases up to 10% for every 1000 meter increase above sea level.1The elevation at Sugarbush mountain is 452m at the base and 1,245m at the summit2, so the intensity of UV exposure for a winter athlete may be 12% greater than it would be at sea level. Furthermore, the winter recreationist can be exposed to the same UV radiation twice, because fresh snow reflects up to 80% of UV radiation.1

Even if you aren’t a winter sports enthusiast, UV radiation penetrates through glass, so damage can happen even while driving in a car or sitting at your desk. Because more than 90 percent of all skin cancers are associated with sun exposure, it is necessary both on and off the slopes to take precautions against harmful UV exposure during the winter months.

Hit the Slopes and Protect Your Skin

The first lines of defense are avoidance of UV radiation, finding shade, and using sun protective clothing. Exposure to the elements such as strong wind and snow can reduce the effectiveness of sunscreen, or simply wear it away. A ski mask or turtle fur that provides maximum protection from sun exposure offers a simple solution. Pants, long sleeves, and gloves are essential, as are a hat or helmet to protect ears from the sun’s rays.

Don’t Forget Your Eyes and Lips

Maintaining eye health is important. Overexposure to UV radiation can damage the eyes and cause cataracts, skin cancers of the eyelids, and melanoma inside the eye. Wearing protective eyewear such as sunglasses or goggles is a good way to protect against the sun’s harmful rays and decrease the risks related to sun damage from UV over-exposure. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends winter sports enthusiasts protect their eyes with goggles or sunglasses with 100% UVA/UVB protection.3

Radiation from the sun can cause lip cancer. It is essential to use lipbalm or lipstick with at least SPF 15 and reapply every 2 hours during all seasons of the year.

How Much SPF Do I Need and How Much Do I Apply?

A sunscreen that is broad spectrum, SPF 30 or higher (the higher the better), and water-resistant can provide effective protection from the sun. All sunscreens need to be reapplied approximately every 2 hours, immediately after sweating, and according to the directions on the bottle.

Apply liberally and evenly to all exposed skin. Adults should apply at least a teaspoon to the face every 2 hours. Don’t forget the underside of the chin, lips, inside nostrils, ears, around the eyes, neck, scalp, and hands.

Sunscreen Application Basics

  • Choose SPF 30 or higher – use SPF 100 if you can find it.
  • Use a broad spectrum sunscreen for UVA and UVB coverage.
  • Use a moisturizing sunscreen.
  • Don’t forget lip balm with SPF.
  • Apply 30 minutes before hitting the slopes.
  • Reapply at least every 2 hours.
  • Do not use a sunscreen after the expiration date. FDA regulations require all sunscreens to retain original strength for three years.

For more information, visit:

  • The American Academy of Dermatology, aad.org
  • The American Cancer Society, cancer.org
  • Skin Cancer Foundation, skincancer.org
  • The American Academy of Ophthalmology, aao.org

Melanie Bui, MD, PhD, is a dermatologist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and an assistant professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. Cari E. Carpenter, ’22, is a medical student at the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.


  1. INTERSUN: the Global UV Project: A guide and compedium. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2003.
  2. Mountain Stats: Terrain. Sugarbush Resort. Vermont Ski Resorts, New England, 2018.
  3. Dang, Shirley. Your Eyes and the Sun: How to choose the best sunglasses. The American Academy of Ophthalmology. 2015 May 1.

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