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Medical experts caution sun protection key even in cold-weather months

Dr. Raman Madan, director of cosmetic dermatology and assistant clinical professor at Northwell Health/Hofstra School of Medicine, spoke about sun protection during the colder months.  Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang

Long Islanders who live the salt life probably have packed their sunscreen away with the summer beach towels and chairs.

But health experts warn that sun protection is key even when it’s too cold to catch rays while lounging on the sand or on a boat.

Applying sunscreen before skiing, winter surfing and shoveling snow can go a long way toward helping ward off skin cancer.

“There’s this misconception that because it’s colder that the sun is less strong — it’s really not true,” said Dr. Adam C. Berger, chief of Melanoma and Soft Tissue Oncology at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. “We don’t feel the direct heat as much, but we are still getting the direct sunlight.”

The sun is actually closer to the Earth during the winter months, but its rays hit at a steeper angle in the summer.

Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which damage the skin, are present throughout the year. Most skin cancers are caused by overexposure to UV light.

“The risk of sun exposure is just as great in the wintertime as it is in the summertime,” Berger said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists skin cancer as the most common form of cancer in the nation.

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The majority of those cases are basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, described by the CDC as “highly curable, but can be disfiguring.”

However, one type of skin cancer, known as melanoma, can be fatal. In 2016, more than 8,000 people died from melanomas of the skin in the United States, according to the CDC, and 82,000 new cases were reported. 

People should be aware of the cumulative impact of sun exposure, said Dr. Raman Madan, director of cosmetic dermatology and assistant clinical professor at Northwell Health/Hofstra School of Medicine.

“One of the things people don’t realize is it’s not one particular sunburn or one particular sun exposure,” Madan said. “It’s like adding sand to a box, and at some point that box fills up and you get skin cancer. If you are not wearing sunscreen, the box is still filling up. You don’t get a break in the winter.”

The strength of ultraviolet rays intensify as they reflect off snow and water.

“A lot of people don’t think about how the sun is reflected off the snow,” Berger said. “I see people come back from ski trips all the time with horrible sunburn on their face.”

Winter surfers, covered head to toe in wet suits, are a common sight along Long Island’s shoreline. Skudin Surf, a school in Long Beach, even holds a class called “Winter Warriors” focused on cold weather surfing, and students are encouraged to use sunscreen.

“Sunscreen is something we promote with all our campers,” said Nancy Dennehy, office manager for Skudin Surf, which runs programs on Long Beach, Nickerson Beach and Rockaway, as well as in Puerto Rico.

“When I go paddleboarding in the winter, I make sure I put sunscreen on my face,” she said.

Madan, who is also a dermatologist at Huntington Hospital, recommends that everyone see a board-certified dermatologist physician for a skin check once a year.

He urges patients to be proactive and mindful of any skin changes that could signal a problem. Asymmetrical spots or moles, jagged borders and uneven colors are some of the warning signs of melanoma.

“We want to catch that because it can spread and lead to death quickly,” Madan said. “Basal cell and squamous cell are much more common. With these types of skin cancers, you are looking for pink scaly plaques … scabby areas that just don’t seem to heal.”

Avid outdoorsman Ed Moran of Smithtown said he keeps sunscreen in his backpack during the warm summer months, but takes it out after October.

He’s active year-round, leading people on cross-country skiing, snowshoe and hiking trips through his guide business Eastern Outdoor Experiences.

“I know there are certain activities later in the winter where I am more prone to getting a sunburn — like skiing,” Moran said.

He admitted his own record of wearing sunscreen while skiing is a spotty one.

“[I wear it] when I’m good and I don’t want my wife to yell at me,” he said with a laugh.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF IN WINTER MONTHS

  • Wear broad spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 15 or higher when you're outside. The sun’s rays can be more damaging to skin when they reflect off the snow and water.
  • Wear sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. They protect the sensitive skin around your eyes and reduce the risk of cataracts.
  • Seek medical help if you see a mole or growth that has uneven colors, is asymmetrical, scaly or won’t heal.

SOURCE: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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