A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

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 absolutely get sunburned on a cloudy or overcast day, so it is important to protect your skin daily,” said Melissa Koopmann, dermatology physician assistant with Marshfield Clinic Health System. “I think the easiest way to do this is get in the habit of applying a moisturizer with built-in SPF every morning, year-round. If you are spending time doing outdoor activities, reapplying every two hours also is needed.”

Protect your skin in the winter by following the same sun protection 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.
  • Wear sun protective clothing like wide brimmed hats.

“Chronic sun damage leads to an increased risk of skin cancer and premature aging of the skin. All the years of sun damage can add up and can lead to concerning skin lesions, fine lines, wrinkles and sun spots,” Koopmann said.

If you do get a sunburn, Care My Way® may be able to help. Download the app to get started.

Cold, dry conditions cause windburn

“Skin that is exposed to cold and windy climates for an extended period of time can develop windburn,” Koopmann 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.

“Windburn is never fun to endure, but luckily usually only lasts a few days before resolving,” she said. “The good news is it does not have long-term effects the way sunburn does.”

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.

If you do experience windburn, treatment options include:

  • Warm skin with lukewarm water.
  • Apply gentle, unscented moisturizers.
  • Wash your face with a mild, moisturizing cleanser.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Humidify the air in your home.
  • If needed, ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation.
  • Avoid harsh skin treatments like exfoliators, peels and products that contain alcohol.
  • Don’t pick your skin.

Koopmann stresses the importance of being proactive in prevention of both sunburn and windburn.

“When spending time outside, whether in the cooler or warmer months, take a few minutes to prepare and protect your skin. It truly pays off in the long run,” she said.

Get more winter skin care tips.

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