"People tend to get more complacent about protecting their skin from the sun in the winter because it's cold," says Dr. Harvey Lui, a dermatologist at the BC Cancer. "But when it comes to skin cancer, it's not about the temperature. It's about ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The risk of getting skin cancer by exposing your skin to the sun's UV rays can still be significant in winter."
Skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells, and it's the most prevalent form of all cancers in Canada. Here are a few ways you can protect yourself this winter.
Staying sun safe in the snow
Whether skiing, boarding or snowshoeing, playing in the snow can be an excellent way to burn some extra Christmas calories and get a healthy dose of fresh air. But even though it's cold, the snow can give your skin a nasty burn.
"You're really getting a double dose of UV radiation when it snows," says Dr. Lui, "One direct dose from the sun and another indirect dose from its reflection off of the snow."
Our skin also contains the least amount of skin-protecting pigment that it has had all year due to the amount of time we've been inside and away from the sun. And pale skin burns quickly.
"Make sure to cover up as much as possible, including your head, nose, hands and feet. Protect your eyes with UV-blocking sunglasses or goggles. And use sunscreen on any exposed areas."
Dr. Lui recommends sunscreen that is SPF 60 or higher, to be safest, as well as moisturizing frequently to keep skin healthy in the dry winter air.
Heading south for the winter
Winter is a time when many British Columbians head south, which can be a great way to beat the winter blues. Just don't forget to pack your sun sense.
"There are plenty of ways that you can protect yourself," says Dr. Lui. "But there are quite a few misconceptions about sun protection that prevent people from taking the necessary precautions."
Read about the common myths about sun protection, here. Good sun sense includes:
- Minimizing the time you spend outdoors between 11am and 3pm when the sun is most intense.
- Covering up as much as possible by wearing long sleeves and long pants with a tight weave.
- Wearing a wide-brimmed hat; the brim should be as wide as the palm of your hand and cover the full circumference of your head.
- Applying sunscreen to any exposed parts of your body; you need about one full ounce (about the size of a shot glass) to cover your entire body.
Step away from the tanning bed
Some travellers go to tanning salons before leaving for a sunny vacation thinking that it will protect their skin from sunburn. And some gym clubs even offer tanning beds with memberships. Dr. Lui strongly advises against them.
"Tanning beds are known carcinogens. Not only are tanning beds bad for your skin, but the protection you get from tanning is not even remotely close to the protection you achieve from practicing good sun sense."
In 2009, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer moved UV tanning beds to its highest risk category, labelling them as carcinogenic.
What about vitamin D?
Exposing your skin to a small amount of UV light can contribute to the body's process of vitamin D synthesis. And some research has shown that having adequate levels of vitamin D can help protect against cancer. However, you don't have to spend hours in the sun.
"It's not necessary to get a lot of sun or to use a tanning bed in order to get adequate levels of vitamin D," says Dr. Lui. "Casual outdoor exposure on a regular basis should be enough for the average person."
If you don't spend much or any time outside during the day you may not be getting enough vitamin D. Dr. Lui says a balanced diet is a preferred way to get your vitamin D from food. But should the average British Columbian take vitamin D supplements?
"I personally don't take them, but I have colleagues that do," says Dr. Lui. "Instead I try to eat a well-balanced diet."
For adults, current Health Canada recommendations are 600 IU per day for age 9 to 70 and 800 IU for those over 70. The most appropriate supplementation level is likely to be above this but below the safe upper level of 4000 IU per day for adults.
Dr. Lui advises that available evidence supports an adult dose of 1000 IU per day, but that more research is needed to determine the optimal amount of vitamin D supplementation required to prevent health problems.
Don't forget the body check
Last but not least, Dr. Lui also recommends that people continue to pay close attention to the look and feel of their skin over the winter.
"Skin cancer can show up at any time of year, not just in the summer. Know your body and check it frequently. If you or a friend notices any kind of abnormal colouring, marks, growths, bumps or lumps on your skin have it checked out by your doctor right away."
Learn more about sun safety, here.