As winter turns to spring, long sunny days of off-piste adventures and ski touring in the mountains beckon! Whilst there's nothing more inviting than fresh air and sunshine on the slopes, it's important to ensure you're well-prepared to take care of your skin. At this time of year the weather can change dramatically, and a little forethought can help assure you’ll avoid the discomfort and harm of afflictions exposure to the elements can cause — such as sunburn, windburn and dryness.
It's quite easy to overlook the potential impact to your skin even short exposures can have if you've not taken the necessary precautions. High alpine environments can subject the skin to damage within just a few hours, so its crucial to preempt harm by thinking ahead. Fortunately, prevention is not too complex or time-consuming a task. Firstly, take a little time to read the weather forecast, discuss with others in the group your objectives for the day, and try as best as possible to determine what conditions you might encounter. Particularly at the beginning of a trip, the swift change in climate (such as transitioning from a routine in the city at a low elevation to that of the Alps) can potentially catch you unawares. This blog's aimed at avoiding such an eventuality — be prepared!
The Mountain Environment
It's important to bare in mind that as you venture into the mountains you'll frequently expose your skin to exceedingly dry air with a reduced oxygen content, and that the effect of the sun can be much more damaging even on a relatively cloudy day (up to 40 per cent of the sun's UV radiation still reaches the earth under such conditions). Also, as a general rule of thumb, consider that for every 1,000ft above sea level the exposure to UV increases by between 4 to 10 per cent.
Wind exposure and dryness
Low temperatures combined with low humidity prove the perfect conditions for exacerbating the effects of windburn, resulting in parched skin deprived of the naturally occurring moisturising effect the oils it secretes would normally provide. Windburn results in dry, reddened and irritated skin that can cause significant discomfort. More severe cases provide a burning sensation and skin peeling. The best form of prevention is the physical barrier provided by an item of clothing such as gloves, scarf/necktube and a hat or balaclava. For those areas you can't cover (when for example conditions require greater ventilation to avoid overheating) apply a hydrating and moisturising balm. A rich application will provide a barrier against the win and protect the skin.
Sun Exposure: Be Smart, Take Care
Before going outside you should apply sunscreen to protect you skin. Sunscreens are products that incorporate different compounds that aid in preventing the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the skin, where it can cause damage. Exposure to two types of radiation, UVA and UVB, cause damage and are also responsible for premature ageing of the skin and also an increase in the risk of developing skin cancer.
It is UVB that is the chief cause behind sunburn. UVA, in contrast, is able to penetrate the skin to a deeper level and is responsible for longer term photoaging effects including sagging and wrinkling. As well as obviously being unsightly, it needs noting that these effects of UVB can also exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of the UVB rays themselves.
The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a rating for sunscreens and other cosmetic products that contain a sunscreen. In theory, the SPF number of a product provides an indication of how long you can stay in the sun before your skin will begin to redden. One should take into consideration that a limitation of the SPF metric is the fact that it is only used to provide a rating of a sunscreen’s ability to protect against UVB rays, not UVA. Most sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or greater do a good job at protecting against UVB rays. The caveat however is that you need to consider your skin type. For example, a rating of 'SPF 15' means that if it would normally take 20 minutes for you unprotected skin to begin to redden, by applying an SPF 15 sunscreen you'll prolong this effect from occurring by x15 i.e. it should take around 5 hours for the same effect to appear. You must consider though that the protection level assumes you apply sufficient cream (so as to provide an adequate layer of the sunscreen’s protective chemical compounds across your skin).
It's important to note that no sunscreen can filter out all UVB light: even an SPF 50 sunscreen, while keeping out 98%, still affords some exposure even when properly applied. To be on the safe side, especially when exercising quite vigorously (for example, while skinning uphill on a ski tour), you should look to reapply a sunscreen every two hours. Don't forget to apply a protecting sunblock too to your lips, and replenish frequently. If you're particularly prone to sweating profusely (or feeling a little out of shape!), consider even more frequent applications! When purchasing a sunscreen, read the label and choose a product that provides broad-spectrum protection (this will incorporate a several different active physical and chemical ingredients that work as a barrier to both UVB and UVA).
Sun Protection Part 2: Consider Your Clothing!
It's important to remember that, while helpful, skincare products aren't the only means of protecting your skin from the elements — this particularly true as regards the sun. More resistant, particularly for longer exposures and in more challenging and extreme conditions, are the physical barriers that items of clothing such as gloves, hats and multi-functional headwear (such as Buffs) provide. It's often overlooked that versatile, lightweight items made from material such as merino wool and polyester can provide a defence from ravaging wind and the sun's UV rays. In particular, gloves and tubular neckwear made from tightly-woven and treated materials are especially efficient at minimising exposure and protecting the skin. It's worth noting that these areas of the body can be quite difficult to cover effectively with skincare products and suncreams (with physical activity, and perspiration, both adding to the problem of ensuring sufficient coverage is maintained over the course of a long day on the slopes).
Fortunately, increased awareness of the long term risk of over-exposure to the sun has led many manufacturers to develop products specifically aimed at providing greater protection. Garments made from densely woven fabrics, or utilising special coatings or treatments, have been developed to minimise UV exposure. Clothing can prove effective by blocking, absorbing or reflecting the sun's UV light that would otherwise risk sunburn or more long term damage such as skin cancer. It's important to consider that various factors determine the level of UV protection that a garment can provide, including primarily both the fit and the type of fabric(s) used in its construction. In particular, factors relating to a fabric's protective efficacy include the type of fibre used; its construction, density and weave; further chemical treatments such as reflective coatings; moisture-wicking properties; and the elasticity of the fabric (which can effect its permeability and the ability of light to penetrate). When choosing a clothing item that will provide protection from UV exposure, look on the garment's tag for a Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating: this figure indicates the fraction of the sun's UVA and UVB radiation that is able to penetrate the fabric and reach the skin, and is assessed in accordance with the applicable standards (British Standard BS EN 13758 and the EU Standard EN 13758-1).
Higher UPF ratings reflect a superior ability to protect the skin from UV rays. Note that you may come across different UPF ratings for the same garment in the US or in the southern hemisphere (such as New Zealand): these differences reflect both different testing regimes and the fact that climatic conditions vary from region to region. Based on the British Standard, a UPF rating of 15-24 provides 'good' protection (93-96% of UV rays blocked); UPF 25 - 39 gives 'very good' protection (blocking 96-97% of UV); whilst an UPF rating of 40-50+ denotes 'excellent' protection and gives the highest level of defence in blocking 97-99%. A shirt with a UPF rating of 50, for example, will allow only 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to reach the skin. Bare in mind that good care of your outdoor clothing will both prolong its life and maintain its protective ability as regards blocking UV; and always follow the label — washing and drying according to the manufacturer's instructions can actually increase a garment's UPF over time (by shrinking gaps in the fabric's weave). When ski touring consider to taking a wide-brimmed (3-inch or greater) hat with you. A good, lightweight hat is effective in covering the scalp of your head and other areas that are either more difficult to apply sunscreen to or are frequently forgotten (…it's amazing how often someone in the group will omit to apply sunscreen to particularly vulnerable and sensitive areas — such as the back of the neck and the tops of ears!).
Once again, it can’t be stressed enough that decent preparation goes a long way… don’t leave skin protection till it’s too late! A trip to the pharmacist when you’ve sunburn is to be avoided — so take the time before you head out each morning to do your reconnaissance, apply the correct skin lotions and screens and equip yourself with the right items of clothing you’ll need. Don’t forget to take supplies to reapply and replenish every two hours or so to ensure you’re fully protected. Bon ski — and enjoy to the maximum those long, sunny days in the mountains!
IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV
The IFMGA / UIAGM / IVBV symbol is the logo of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association.
Nick, Olly and Matt are all fully-qualified UIAGM Mountain Guides and members of the British Mountain Guides Association.
The International Ski Instructors Association is the world body for professional ski instructors.
The ISIA was formed in 1971 and there are currently 39 member nations representing the very best in ski instruction around the world.