A day in the snow

Protecting skin and eyes helps to ensure that winter sports activities are healthy for spirit and body 

Pack the sunscreen for a day in the snow

By Dr. Gabriele Weichert 

Who can resist playing in the snow on a beautiful winter day? Living in coastal British Columbia, my family likes to escape the rainy weather by taking weekend trips to mountains for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. To help ensure these outings are healthy for our spirits and our bodies, including our skin, we never leave home without sunscreen. This includes stocking our pockets before heading out into the snow to protect ourselves from the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. 

The most important rays to be aware of are ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). Both are known carcinogens that contribute to different cellular changes, predisposing us to skin cancer. 

UVB is weaker in the winter with the tilt of the earth away from the sun. That’s why we are less prone to getting sunburned during that season. But UVA is different – it’s more of a “silent” form of ultraviolet radiation that causes minimal redness or sunburn. It has a deeper penetration, reaching the important collagen and elastin fibres. Once these fibres are degraded, wrinkles and slack skin appear. And UVA is not significantly diminished in winter – hence the need for protection. 

Winter sports enthusiasts should also know that snow and ice are excellent reflectors of light. Almost 100 per cent of the rays can bounce back, potentially doubling the exposure. Ultraviolet rays are often reflected at unexpected angles, calling for the protection of lips, nose and eyes. An example that has been well documented in the north and in high altitude skiers is snow blindness, an inflammation of the outer layers of the eye from intense sun on snow and ice. 

Higher altitude generally means more ultraviolet exposure. For every 1,000 metres in elevation, the thinner air filters less and increases exposure by 10 per cent. All factors considered, at the top of Whistler Mountain the rays can be 120 per cent stronger than in Vancouver. And haze and clouds may not offer any protection as ultraviolet light can easily penetrate thin cloud cover.  

No matter the season, using minimum SPF 30 broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) sunscreen makes sense for all Canadians who enjoy the outdoors. It’s advisable to be generous – most people underapply sunscreen and don’t achieve the protection they aim for. Sweating, snow and precipitation will make repeat applications necessary. Heavier or moisturizing sunscreen preparations may offer added protection from the dry cold air. Many stick-applicator sunscreens are popular in winter and are often small enough to fit in a coat pocket. Sun protection for the eyes is important as well.  

Protecting the skin from ultraviolet rays in winter will reduce the risks of skin cancer and photo-aging. It will also ward off the embarrassment of showing up at work with a goggle-tan (or burn).

Dr. Gabriele Weichert (MD, PhD) is a community dermatologist practicing in Nanaimo, B.C. (www.skincarewest.com). In addition to clinical work and cross-country skiing, she is on a quest to encourage Vancouver Island residents to lead active, healthy and sun-safe lives.  

Protect yourself against snow blindness 

By Dr. Paul Rafuse 

When severe sunburn affects one of the most densely innervated tis- sues of the body, the pain is intense. This is snow blindness, medically referred to as photokeratitis, and it occurs when the outermost layer of the cornea on the surface of the eye is burned by ultraviolet (Uv) exposure.

Often triggered by sunlight reflected off snow, the “blindness” comes from a pain that is so intense that the eyes cannot be kept open.

Luckily, snow blindness is temporary. As a medical student, I once forgot my sun- glasses in my haste to go skiing. After a great time on the slopes, I had tears streaming down my cheeks on the way home. The only relief came from keeping my eyes closed. Thankfully, everything was back to normal by morning.

In more severe cases, pressure patches are applied until the affected area of the cor- nea regenerates. Complete healing can take a few days and there are usually no lasting effects.

Dark, wraparound sunglasses that block 99 per cent of Uv rays offer the best protection against snow blindness. 

Dr. Paul Rafuse is the president of the Canadian Ophthalmological Society and an Associate Professor in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at Dalhousie University, Halifax in Nova Scotia. 


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