Yes, you do still need to wear sunscreen in winter. Here's why.
Let me start with a disclaimer — I’m not a doctor. I’m not here to give you medical advice, nor am I qualified to do so. What I am is a beauty journalist. One with 13-odd years of experience interviewing dermatologists and skin therapists on sun safety, skin damage and sunscreen. I’m also the founder of a not-for-profit that exists to educate young Australian women about melanoma – Call Time On Melanoma. So, it’s with that background I’m telling you that yes, I think sunscreen is still important in winter.
That said, it’s a bit of a complicated issue, and I want you to understand why this is my personal take. So, I’m going to break it down as best I can, touching on (and hopefully explaining) a few of the misconceptions about sunscreen and sun safety that ping into my DMs every week. I’m all about sharing the cold hard facts so that you can make an informed decision that’s right for you. Ready?
Fact 1. We don’t know how much sun is safe.
Think about it. We all have different skin tones and potential skin cancer and melanoma risk factors—how could these variables possibly be accounted for when advising the gen pop on how much sun is safe? Most experts agree that when the UV Index rating is under 3, you can skip sunscreen. However, SunSmart add this caveat: “When UV levels are low, sun protection is not recommended unless you work outdoors, are near reflective surfaces, or outside for extended periods”. Now tell me. How long is an extended period? 15 minutes? 30? 90? We don’t know. It’s impossible to give advice that is appropriate for every circumstance, every day and every individual.
For this reason, I support a “better safe than sorry” approach. Personally, I’d rather apply sunscreen every morning knowing that if I do happen to be caught outside, or near water, I’m well protected from UV rays. If I know I’m going to be inside all day and not near a window, I may opt to go without.
Fact 2. UV isn’t necessarily related to light or heat.
UV radiation from the sun cannot be seen or felt, unlike the sun’s heat which we can feel. Just because it’s not a particularly hot day, doesn’t mean that the UV rating is low. This BoM map of average UV Indexes shows how, even during the winter months, UV can climb into the High, Very High and Extreme categories in many parts of the country. Even Canberra and Melbourne can fall into the Moderate category (over 3) in which sun protection is required. You’re free to check this information on a daily basis, but again, wouldn’t it just be easier to apply sunscreen every day?
“Sun damage accumulates every time your skin is unprotected”
Fact 3. Sun damage is cumulative.
Let’s say you decide the UV is under 3 and you feel comfortable skipping sunscreen for the day. Does this mean you’re completely safe from incoming UV rays? No, actually. While you will be less at risk, sun damage accumulates every time your skin is unprotected. Like the spare change you chuck into a piggy bank, it all adds up. And unlike money, sun damage to the DNA in your skin cells lasts forever. Yes, lasers can remove cosmetic damage, but the damage done to your DNA cannot be reversed.
Fact 4. It’s not just about skin cancer.
Over at CTOM we talk a lot about melanoma and skin cancer. But sun damage also accelerates ageing. (Scientists call it photoageing—Google it if you never want to sun bake again.) The sun is a harsh bastard and it degrades the collagen and elastin in your skin, causing a loss of firmness. It also causes hyperpigmentation which has been shown in some studies to contribute more to people’s perception of ageing than wrinkles do. (i.e. women with hyperpigmentation were judged to look older than those with wrinkles.) Also? If you use active skincare (anything with acids and enzymes) your skin is likely sensitised to the sun. Sunscreen is a must for you every single day, full stop.