So, you’ve decided to head outside this winter, maybe to beat the winter blues. Whether you’re trying a new activity or taking a cruise where the sun doesn’t stop shining, getting some extra rays during bleary months can be a vitamin D and morale booster.
However, if you don’t take proper precautions, you might also increase your risk of experiencing skin cancer or other negative effects from sun exposure. Just because it’s cold outside doesn’t mean the sun’s rays can’t damage your skin.
“Melanoma is a cancer that is especially prevalent” in young people, said June Robinson, a research professor of dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
We might see ourselves as more aware of the risks of sun exposure than our parents or grandparents were, but “if young adults are more aware of the risks of sun exposure, they are not taking steps to protect themselves,” Robinson said.
It’s easy to skimp on sun protection during colder months, but winter sun actually poses its own unique risks. We need to “be aware of UV reflection from snow and ice, Robinson said. “The UV rays bounce off the snow and come under a hat to burn the side of the neck,” for example.
“(Melanoma) is often associated with those who engage in an outdoor lifestyle,” she said. “In fact, melanoma is the only cancer where physical activity is associated with cancer risk. … This is probably due to unprotected sun exposure. …
“People trying to be healthy by doing all they can for heart health may unknowingly put themselves at risk for melanoma.”
If caught early enough, melanoma and many other forms of skin cancer can be treated with surgery, Robinson said. However, if left unchecked, “melanoma can spread to internal organs and kill people.”
But you don’t have to toss aside your newfound passion for skijoring in order to avoid developing skin cancer.
If you take steps to reduce your exposure to the sun’s UV rays, you can lessen your likelihood of developing skin cancer.
Soon, you might even be able to buy a tiny fingernail wearable designed to help you modulate your UV exposure.
As far as researchers know, it’s the world’s smallest wearable technology, said John Rogers, a Northwestern University engineer who worked on the device, called a dosimeter. He, Robinson and other researchers developed a technology that’s “as light as a raindrop and smaller in circumference than an M&M,” according to a news release.
The wearable, which researchers are calling UV Sense and is being brought to market by L’Oréal, was introduced at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month.
The waterproof, customizable, battery-free device sticks to a fingernail using “an adhesive material similar to that used to bond artificial nails to the fingernails,” Rogers said. It connects to a smartphone app, which reads the amount of UV exposure the dosimeter registers.
The app also provides users with individualized advice about minimizing UV exposure. It compiles the suggestions based on the GPS location of the user’s phone, the user’s behavior patterns and weather predictions
UV Sense isn’t commercially available just yet.
“L’Oréal’s plan is for limited release to their worldwide network of dermatologists this year and broader release to the public next year,” Rogers said.
In the meantime, he, Robinson and other researchers are using a grant from the National Institutes of Health to test the wearable in human clinical trials for people who are at risk for melanoma.
There are steps you can take now to protect your skin in the wintertime and beyond. Here are some tips from Robinson:
“Clothing is the best protection and is often the choice of many people,” Robinson said. “For skin that is not covered by clothing… sunscreens should be applied before going outside.”
Your risk increases if you or a relative have a history of skin cancer. It also goes up if you have a history of sunburns, are taking certain medications (such as thiazide diuretics or tetracycline), have immunosuppression (through HIV or following organ donation), have 50 or more moles or tan indoors.
You’ve probably already heard this one before, but it bears repeating, because “young adults… are more likely to engage in deliberate indoor tanning, which is a form of UV radiation exposure,” Robinson said.
To get that year-round glow, invest in a sunless self-tanner instead.
“Checking your skin helps to find concerning spots early and may save your life.”
If there are places that are difficult for you to see (such as your back or the top of your head), ask a partner to help.
How can you tell if a mole is just a mole—or something more serious? If you see moles that are large (five or more millimeters in diameter), have irregular borders or multiple colors, see your doctor. The same is true if a mole grows, the border becomes irregular or its color changes.
If you’re soaking up the sun’s rays without protection because you want to up your vitamin D intake, consider finding alternative sources, Robinson said.
“Diets with egg yolks, fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel and fortified milk and cereal can satisfy your vitamin D needs without sun exposure,” she said.
You can also talk to your doctor about taking an over-the-counter vitamin D supplement.
With a little extra effort, it’s possible to enjoy the sun without risking your longterm health.
Rachel Crowell is an Iowa-based writer exploring science and math. Rachel lives with Delilah, a golden retriever a stranger once called “the cutest thing in America.” Outside of STEM topics, Rachel also welcomes writing opportunities on everything from art to finance. Follow them on Twitter at @writesRCrowell.