Sun protection is honestly simple: When there is sun, you protect yourself. In the absence of daylight, there aren’t many UV rays being hurled your way. That’s why you can skip the sunscreen when you go out at night. But even in winter, when the days are short and the sun often hides behind the clouds, UV rays are beaming down ready to hit your skin.
“Most people want to ease up on sunscreen use during the winter, as the sun feels weaker and they are less likely to burn,” says Carly Roman, dermatologist at MD in Seattle. She notes that only one of the two UV perpetrators, UVB, is actually reduced by clouds. And while those UVB rays are the culprit behind sunburn, the other type of UV rays (UVA) are very much present year-round—and it’s imperative to avoid them.
Before we dive any deeper, here’s a quick refresher on UVA and UVB rays.
UVA Rays vs. UVB Rays
UVA Rays: Ultraviolet A rays, also called “long wave” rays, make up 95 percent of the rays that reach the surface of the Earth. They can penetrate the skin much deeper than UVB rays, and are responsible for signs of aging (like dark spots and wrinkles). They also can initiate skin cancers. These are the rays that make you more tan. UVA rays can penetrate glass and clouds.
UVB: Ultraviolet B rays, or “shortwave” rays, don’t penetrate the skin as deeply. They’re what causes redness and sunburns. They are most intense from early spring to early fall, and during the day’s sunniest hours. UVB rays are not as likely to penetrate glass as UVA rays, but even though they dwindle in the winter, many can reach the Earth’s surface and are easily reflected off snow and ice. This makes them a bigger threat on the ski slopes, and at higher altitudes on sunny days.
So, those “photo-aging” UVA rays can find you year round—even in winter, even in rain, even in the shade, and even indoors. (And even through your clothes!). Obviously, if all UV rays snuck through there, you’d never have to worry about a farmer’s tan, but the point is that UVA rays are basically omnipresent, even in small amounts.
Should You Wear SPF Year Round, Even in Winter?
Yes, says Roman without hesitation. “Even in the winter in Seattle, I recommend that all of my patients wear sunscreen daily to prevent cumulative sun exposure and the resulting fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and even skin cancer,” she says. “It is important that your sunscreen is ‘broad spectrum’—this denotes full coverage, including UVA protection.” Roman prefers physical sunscreens—ones with active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that physically block the damaging rays—that you apply from hand to body.
Of course, sometimes the sun does show itself in winter. Those rays reflect off snow and ice and can still make their way into your skin. Secondly, if you’re into high-altitude activities, then you’re all the more susceptible to the rays. Ski burn is real, and it leaves gnarly tan lines.
The Best Face SPFs
Of course, applying literal sunscreen to your face every day feels silly. Because it can be hefty, it can smell like a piña colada, and some leave us sweaty and breaky-outy. Worry not. The easiest way to get daily SPF is through an SPF-packed moisturizer or serum. In this way, SPF becomes part of your morning regimen, and is automatically part of your daily habits—that means you never go outside without a shield of SPF over your precious, youthful mug.
The alternative is a facial sunscreen, formulated to be lightweight and non-comedogenic. It can be worn over top of your non-SPF moisturizer (since we can’t expect everyone to go divorce their favorite hydrating product).
Here are our top picks for daily use:
The Best Moisturizer with SPF
Two birds, one stone: Protect your skin while you moisturize.
The best SPF moisturizer you can buy at the drugstore
It’s hard to go wrong with CeraVe
The best SPF serum
This SPF serum is packed with skin brightening vitamin C—it’s another way to sneak SPF into your routine.
The best mineral face sunscreen
If you prefer physical SPF protection, this is a great daily driver.