Sunscreen When It Is Cloudy: Why You Need SPF Protection Year-Round

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With winter darkness and spring showers, it’s natural to wonder whether you really need to wear sunscreen every day. It turns out, the sun’s rays are powerful enough to penetrate even dark clouds.

"Wearing sunscreen is important year-round, even when it is cold and overcast outside," says Henry Lim, M.D., a dermatologist at Henry Ford Health System. "Exposure to sunlight can cause negative skin changes that can lead to wrinkling, sunburn and skin cancer. Sunscreen acts as a protective barrier against the sunlight."

Sunlight Basics

Two major components of light come from the sun: ultraviolet-B (UVB), which creates a sunburn reaction, and ultraviolet-A (UVA), which can lead to photoaging, or wrinkling. Unfortunately, no matter how thick the clouds appear, the sun's rays can still penetrate them.

"UVA continues to be strong during the wintertime," Dr. Lim says. UVA light can penetrate clouds, window glass and the surface of your skin. It can damage the deeper layers of the skin, leading to premature aging and contributing to the development of skin cancer. UVB rays are stronger in the summer months and damage the surface layers of the skin; they cause sunburn.

Don't forget that sunlight is reflective, too. In the summer months, sunlight reflects off the water and sand. In the winter, it bounces off snow. If you're spending time in the mountains, at the beach or enjoying winter sports, you're at increased risk of sun damage, even when it's cloudy outside.

What To Look For In A Year-Round Sunscreen

It's important to protect your skin against sun damage by applying sunscreen daily on exposed skin when you plan to be outdoors. Sunscreen should be part of your skin care routine, no matter the season. Other important strategies are staying in the shade when outdoors, using photoprotective clothing and wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

Finding the right sunscreen to suit your needs and preferences can be a challenge. A few things to look for:

  • Sun protection factor: The sun protection factor, or SPF, measures how much protection against sunburn a sunscreen offers. The higher the SPF, the more protective it is against sunburn.
  • Broad-spectrum coverage: A “broad-spectrum” sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Without that term on the label, you can't be sure how well the product protects against UVA rays.
  • Comfortable application: The best sunscreen to choose is the one you will apply. Some people prefer physical sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Others prefer chemical sunscreens since they don't leave a white residue on the skin. "My recommendation is to use the sunscreen that is most comfortable for you," Dr. Lim says. "For dark-skinned individuals or people who are concerned about white residue, chemical sunscreens or a tinted sunscreen that matches your natural skin tone may be an option."

The key to protecting your skin from sun damage and skin cancer: Wear sunscreen even on cloudy days and when outdoors, reapply every two to four hours.

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To find a doctor or dermatologist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Dr. Henry Lim is a dermatologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Cancer Institute - Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center - New Center One.

Categories: FeelWell