Healthy Skin Up High

By Cindy Kleh

The beauty of the high country draws visitors and residents outside to play, and that’s generally good for your health. But the dry, thin air can wreak havoc on your skin, requiring extra care to keep it young, supple and radiant.

The atmosphere in lower-elevations has more tiny specks of water and dust to filter out the sun’s radiation, but the higher you climb, the less protection your skin has. An hour in the sun at sea level has the same amount of burning power as 15 minutes at the top of an 11,000-foot-high mountain!

Add snow or water to reflect the sun’s rays, and you have the recipe for a painful sunburn that can lead to skin cancer later in life. That is the most dangerous aspect of high altitude sun, especially for those that live here year-round.

“We see a lot of severe sunburns up here,” says Dr. Darcy Selenke of the East Grand Community Clinic and Emergency Care Center located at the base of Winter Park Resort. “People forget that snow reflects the sun or they think they don’t need sunscreen in the winter. Data suggests that the higher frequency of sunburns suffered, the higher risk for skin cancer later in life, especially if you have those sunburns as a child.”


Not All Sunscreens Are Safe!

Most folks know that sunscreen is critical to preventing sunburn, but they may be confused about SPF – Sun Protection Factor. Many assume that the higher the SPF the better, but according to the Annual Sunscreen Guide of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), only 25 percent of more than 1,400 sunscreens, lotions, lip products and sunscreen makeup they tested were deemed safe.

This nonprofit environmental health research organization explains that the term SPF measures UVB protection, or its ability to prevent sunburn. However, it is UVA rays that cause skin cancer and wrinkles. Outdoor enthusiasts who buy a sunscreen with a high SPF feel that they can tolerate longer sessions in the sun, but if it isn’t a “broad spectrum” product (blocking both UVA and UVB), they could have a false sense of security.

Sunscreen products with SPFs higher than 50 often make false claims such as “waterproof,” “sunblock” and “all-day protection.” The EWG recommends avoiding sunscreen products that contain retinyl palmitate, which may cause tumors, and oxybenzone, which is linked to hormone disruption. Recommended ingredients include titanium dioxide, zinc, avobenzene or Mexoryl SX. Avoid sunscreen sprays and powders because the tiny particles that remain in the air are dangerous to breathe.


Looking Younger for Longer

Sunscreens can also help prevent wrinkles, especially at high altitude where the air is exceptionally dry. Tanya Gioia, owner of Joyous Skin and Sunless Tanning Salon in Granby, suggests reapplying sunscreen often and making sure your skin stays hydrated to combat signs of aging.

“There’s pretty much no atmosphere up here, and because we’re closer to the sun, skin has a hard time protecting itself from transdermal water loss.”

She explains that skin cells begin fat and round with moisture, like grapes, but as they find their way to the surface, they lose water and start to resemble raisins. In dry skin, these cells become more like corn flakes. She recommends exfoliating scrubs, microderm abrasions, chemical peels, LED lights and ultra sound to remove the crusty flakes.

“It cost much less to take care of your skin when it’s young than to fight wrinkles later in life, so for young people, I have this advice:

·       Stay away from tanning beds! They have 13% UVB rays, while the sun has 3%. Instead use spray tans – they have come a long way since the orangey-tinted ones of the past.

·       Buy cute hats with a brim to protect your face and use a 30 SPF sunscreen. Don’t forget to protect your lips, too.

·       Exfoliate twice a week and moisturize religiously.

·       Drink lots of water.

Throw out sunscreens that are more than two years old or have been in a car that has seen extreme temperatures. (When you play outside in the summer, leave your sunscreen in a cooler.)

When showering, try to use lower-temperature water so your skin won’t be stripped of its natural moisture, and use a moisturizing soap. If you have so much dryness that you experience rashes, bring your moisturizer into the shower with you and apply it while your skin’s still wet. Wait for a minute or two to let the moisturizer sink in.

When Jack Frost Bites

Frostbite can permanently damage your skin, and should not be taken lightly. If you or a friend notices exposed skin getting white or feels numbness or stinging, end your day on the mountain as soon as you can! Rapid and moist rewarming in a tub or steam room is best, but getting inside is imperative! Those fresh tracks can wait!

“One mistake people make is to go inside and warm up when they realize their appendages are getting cold, but then they go back out in the cold to play,” states Dr. Selenke. “This warming and re-exposing to cold causes more tissue damage. It is better to get inside and stay there.”

Over-the-counter cortisone creams can treat frostbite, but for severe frostbite (pain, swelling, discharge, blistering, high fever), see a doctor. 

“Superficial frostbite will blister and heal like a bad sunburn, but deep frostbite that freezes muscle and bone can result in the mummification of appendages and the nose, causing them to self amputate (fall off). Seek medical help as soon as possible as there are certain treatments and rewarming techniques that could possibly save the damaged tissues.

Exhaustion and dehydration can make you more susceptible to frostbite, because with less blood volume, there is less circulation to keep the extremities warm.”

In a place that sees extreme cold and dryness, and over 300 sunny days per year, it is important to protect your skin. Enjoy the high altitude, but take necessary precautions so you won’t end up looking decades older than you actually are.


Cindy Kleh has lived at the top of the Rockies for nearly 30 years and is the editor of Grand County Living magazine. She has several books published on the sport of snowboarding.