A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Sunburn and windburn: Winter skin damage culprits

two kids sledding - sunburn and snow

Use sunscreen and thick moisturizer when outdoors in the winter to avoid a sneaky duo of skin damage culprits – sunburn and windburn.

Spending time outdoors on a cloudy winter day can do more than just chill your skin.

Sunburn and windburn can damage skin that’s not properly protected.

Cold and clouds don’t block UV rays

Most people associate sunburn with hot, sunny days, but the sun’s rays are just as harmful when it’s cold outside.

“You can even get sunburn on cloudy days,” said Dr. Diane Meyer, a Marshfield Clinic dermatologist. “Between 50 and 80 percent of ultraviolet rays go right through the clouds.”

Snow and ice make matters worse. They reflect up to 80 percent of UV rays that reach the ground, meaning you get hit from two angles.

Skiers and snowboarders who head to the mountains for their sports are even more likely to get sunburned. With every 1,000-foot increase in elevation, your level of UV exposure increases 8-10 percent, Meyer said.

Protect your skin in the winter by following the same sunscreen rules recommended for summer:

  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen and lip balm with SPF 30 or higher.
  • Apply sunscreen to exposed skin every two hours.
  • Use sunscreen indoors if you spend most of your day near a window or in the car.
  • Wear sunglasses outdoors.

“Incidental sun exposure adds up,” Meyer said. “Skin damage can form over time even if you don’t get enough sun to cause sunburn. It’s good to protect your skin on a regular basis.”

Cold, dry conditions cause windburn

“Windburn is skin damage caused by a combination of cold temperature and low humidity that deplete your skin’s natural oils,” Meyer said.

Windburn looks and feels similar to sunburn. It makes skin red, dry and irritated. Sometimes skin feels hot and looks swollen. It’s most common on the face, but any exposed skin can get windburn.

Prevent windburn by covering skin with clothing and wearing sunglasses or goggles on cold, windy days. Apply a thick moisturizer to exposed skin every two hours in addition to sunscreen and lip balm. Check the weather and try to avoid being outside for a long time when the wind chill is very low.

Treat wind burned skin using these steps:

  • Warm skin with lukewarm water.
  • Apply a thick moisturizer 2-4 times a day.
  • Wash your face with a mild, moisturizing cleanser.
  • Ease discomfort with ibuprofen.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Humidify the air in your home.
  • Avoid harsh skin treatments like exfoliators, peels and products that contain alcohol.
  • Don’t pick your skin.

See your doctor if your skin is extremely blistered or swollen from windburn.

Get more winter skin care tips.

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