Skin cancer and winter: What you should know

There is a common misconception that your skin is safe from the sun’s damaging UV rays during the winter season. But did you know you can still receive skin cancer-causing cell damage even in cold weather?

The cooler temperatures at this time of year lure some people into a false sense of safety, yet skin cancers are still prevalent no matter the season.

“It doesn’t really matter what the temperature is outside or whether there is cloud cover,” says Professor David Wilkinson, Chief Medical Officer at National Skin Cancer Centres.

Here is what you should know about skin cancer this winter.

Can you still get skin cancer in winter?

Yes. Even on cool or cloudy days, your skin is susceptible to harm from the sun’s UV rays. UV rays cause irreversible cell damage, leading to early signs of skin ageing like wrinkles and sagging skin, and heightening your risk of developing skin cancer.

Getting sunburnt just once every two years triples your chances of getting the potentially deadly disease – and yes, you can get sunburnt in winter, too.

This is because harmful UV radiation is present year-round. UV rays can filter through thick cloud coverage to reach your skin and you’re unlikely to notice until the damage has already happened, since UV radiation is invisible to the naked eye and can’t be felt.

In Australia, UV levels can remain high throughout the year, especially in the northern parts of the country. If you go outside – no matter what the season – any uncovered areas of your body are exposed to UV rays, and sun exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer.

Don’t forget that it’s still possible to get sunburnt in winter, and sun protection is a must.

How can you protect your skin in winter?

As temperatures drop, don’t think you can put away the sunscreen and hang up your sun hat. It’s important to wear sun protection year-round to lower your chances of getting skin cancer – even in winter.  

In winter, you can protect your skin by:

Wearing sunscreen

Sunscreen is the number one protection against sun exposure. Apply a product every day of the year that is SPF30 or higher, broad-spectrum and water resistant. Use it liberally at least 30 minutes before going outside and pay extra attention to your face, ears, hands and arms. Reapply it every two hours or more often if you’re swimming or sweating. Applying sunscreen will help to minimise the number of sunburns you get, which reduces your skin cancer risks dramatically.

Protecting yourself in the snow

Winter is the perfect time for a ski holiday, which also offers the ideal conditions for sunburn. In high altitudes, UV rays are even more intense because the atmosphere is thinner. Snow also reflects up to 80 per cent of UV rays, so a day on the ski slopes can be as bad for your skin as a day at the beach.

Just one blistering sunburn increases you risk of skin cancer and five or more sunburns doubles your risk of developing melanoma, one of the deadliest forms of skin cancer.

Enjoying the sun safely

Take some additional steps to completely protect your skin in winter.

  • Use an SPF30+ lip balm
  • Cover exposed skin with a long-sleeved shirt or jacket, and gloves
  • Wear a hat or beanie that covers your ears
  • Wear sunglasses (or goggles in the snow)
  • Seek shade between 10am and 4pm when the sun’s UV rays are strongest
  • Get to know your skin and check it monthly using the ABCs of melanoma

Why is winter the ideal time for a skin check?

Winter can be the ideal time to see your doctor for your annual skin cancer check.

All Australians are encouraged to get their skin checked during the cooler months, when suspicious changes are easier to identify without the disguise of a summer tan.

In the cooler months, your skin is usually covered by layers of clothes to keep you warm. This means you’ve had less UV exposure than usual, and your skin hasn’t been subjected to much tanning or burning, which makes it easier for the doctor to examine your skin.

With no tan concealing your moles, freckles and spots, we can much more clearly identify abnormalities and changes which may indicate skin cancer.

Rugging up in winter also means you’re less likely to notice changes in your own skin, as it’s less exposed. So you may be looking less, but we can see more!

Detecting skin cancer in its earliest stages gives you the best chance of successful treatment, and getting a skin check now is a great way to ensure you’re ready for summer. Plus, there are usually shorter wait times for treatment during winter as less people are thinking about getting their skin checked. The cooler months are also better for recovery if you are diagnosed with skin cancer and require treatment.

Delaying your annual check-up could lead to worse outcomes for you, such as significant scarring, worsening/spreading of the tumour, or even death.