At higher altitudes, the sun’s rays have less ultraviolet (UV) light filtering atmosphere to blaze through, and the higher you climb, the thinner the atmosphere.
For roughly every 1,000 feet above sea level, the sun’s UV rays intensify by 8-10 percent, so no matter where you are in the Roaring Fork Valley, the effects of the sun are 50-140 percent more potent.
Here in the Valley, we are bathed in about 250 sunny days a year, and on top of that, socializing and recreation often happen outdoors, every day and every season of the year. If we are skiing, rafting, fly fishing or rock climbing, we are on more reflective surfaces, so we are getting double exposure to the UV rays bouncing off these surfaces.
If you’re new to town, the Roaring Fork Valley is a very dry climate, what is considered an Alpine desert. When you first arrive or have been visiting more humid environments, there is usually a period where your skin is adjusting to our local climate. You may find that you need extra applications of skin moisturizers to avoid developing or exacerbating extreme dry skin conditions. Equally, if not more important, is making the daily use of sunscreen and sunblocks a part of your essential grooming routine, just like brushing your teeth before you leave the house.
Here are answers to some of the frequently asked questions that I receive from our employees:
Q: How do sunscreen and sunblock actually work to protect people who use them?
Sunscreen and sunblock are two different things, which is important to clarify. Sunscreen is a chemical that screens the sun’s rays – some get in and some are blocked out. Sunscreen actually absorbs the harmful UV radiation before it penetrates the skin. Sunblock sits on top of the skin and reflects the sun and UV rays. Sunblocks like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the most effective in blocking ultraviolet radiation, because they truly don’t let any rays in. Both zinc- and titanium-based sunblock have been determined to be safe and effective by the FDA. The term “broad spectrum” means that the product is targeted to minimize exposure to both types of ultraviolet radiation, UVA and UVB. UVA is a type of radiation that causes aging. UVA radiation breaks down layers deep in our skin and causes us to wrinkle. UVB radiation is the type that causes skin cancer.
Q: What’s the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 and SPF 80?
“SPF” stands for Sun Protection Factor. It indicates protection against UVB, the burning rays. A higher SPF technically means you can be in the sun for longer periods of time. Using a sunscreen that’s SPF 30 theoretically means it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t using sunscreen at all. That’s not how it really works, but is how it was originally defined. A higher SPF is going to protect you for longer in the sun, but it’s really a micro-difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 in terms of the percentage of rays that come through. Under ideal conditions, you would want to use a higher SPF to be in the sun longer, with the caveat that we’re all supposed to be reapplying sunscreen, no matter its strength, every two hours, and more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating.
Q: Is there a minimum level in terms of getting real protection from the sun?
At our elevation, use an SPF 30. Anything less than that is more of a tanning lotion versus a sunscreen. I recommend that people don’t go above SPF 50, because all you’re buying is more chemicals for what really is a minuscule gain in terms of percentage of protection.
Q: What should people think about when choosing a sunscreen to purchase?
I would say the number one question people should ask themselves is: Are they going to use it? The best sunscreen you can have is the one you’re going to use. If you have sensitive skin, you want to look for something that doesn’t harm sensitive skin. If you don’t like the white appearance of a zinc or titanium dioxide sunblock, then I recommend using a high SPF sunscreen. In particular, you want to avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone. It is believed to be quite carcinogenic and has been banned for years in Europe, where its possible effects as an endocrine disrupter are being studied. It is still used in the United States in some sunscreens. Sunscreens that have been labeled “reef safe” are probably also the most “human safe.” I prefer a combination sunblock and sunscreen, which you can find. That way you’re getting the UV block with things like titanium and zinc, but you’re also getting UV reflection that comes with the sunscreens, so you’re using everything possible in your toolkit.
The other thing is if people are going to the beach or lakes, you want to look for “reef-safe” sunscreen, because some of the chemicals in sunscreens are detrimental to the water we swim in – fish species and coral can be badly affected. Oxybenzone, which I mentioned before, is one of the chemicals that harm coral reefs. I generally look for that label, because if it’s not safe for the reefs, I don’t want it on my body either. Most reef-safe sunscreens are chemically safer for us as well.
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Q: What are the best practices with sunscreen – if you’re outside all day, or swimming at a pool or the beach?
It’s recommended you apply sunscreen 20 minutes before you go out. Reapply every two hours, and more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating a lot. Be sure and apply sunscreen or sunblock on cloudy days, which is something people don’t always think about. The UV rays can still penetrate on cloudy days, so people think they are not getting any sun when in fact they are, particularly the UVA rays that cause aging and skin damage over time. Also, people typically apply too little sunscreen. It’s recommended you use one ounce for your whole body, which is equal to a shot glass. If you think about a shot glass full, that’s a lot of lotion!
Don’t forget your lips. A lot of people will go out and bike or hike all day long and forget that their lips are exposed skin as well. Lip cancers are not uncommon here in the Roaring Fork Valley. Same rules apply: use a high-quality SPF 30-or-above sunscreen or sunblock lip balm.
Q: What are some of the most common concerns people express, and how much should they really worry?
Some people say that sunscreen is worse for you than exposure to the sun. That is an absolute myth. Here at elevation, Pitkin and Eagle counties have some of the highest rates of skin cancer in Colorado, in part because we’re closer to the sun. We also tend to recreate more outside, which over time can be detrimental to our skin’s health, so it’s important to protect yourself. Our skin is our largest organ, so if you smear something all over your
body, you’re probably going to absorb some of it. Some of the chemicals in sunscreens can be dangerous, so it’s important to be aware. But the bigger danger to our health is the significant risk of skin cancer at our elevation.
Q: What are the recommendations for people who have had skin cancer in the past?
People should protect themselves as much as they can. They definitely want to avoid the peak sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. I am a huge fan of SPF clothing. There’s so much available now compared to what there used to be. You can buy shirts and hats that are SPF 30 or SPF 50. The difference between regular clothing and SPF clothing is the tighter weave of the fabric. So, there is much less penetration of UV rays through to the skin with SPF shirts and hats than with other clothing. I personally wear SPF shirts as much as possible when I’m outside, because I don’t like being slimed with sunscreen all day. Plus, you don’t have to reapply.
Q: Can I sunburn my eyes?
Your eyes need sunscreen, too. Enough cannot be said about the intensity of the sun at high altitudes. In winter this intensity is compounded by the UV reflections off the snow. When your eyes are exposed to too much intense UV light, your retinas can burn, which leads to snow blindness. Look for glasses with a UV rating. Goggles, wraparound sunglasses or glacier glasses will give you protection by reducing direct and reflected UV radiation and glare reaching the eyes. Many people are not aware that melanoma can occur in the eyes too. Your eyes will thank you.
If you have any concerns about your skin, our physicians at Aspen Valley Primary Care are experienced in treating many common skin conditions related to our high-altitude climate.
An Aspen native, Amy has been with the Hospital since 1996. When away from work, Amy enjoys everything under the Colorado sun.