What you need to know about skin safety in the mountains

Chances are, if you’re heading to the mountains – no matter your activity of choice – you’ll be outside in the elements for long periods and, probably, being fairly active. Experiencing the outdoors, discovering new places and seeing incredible scenery are just some of the magical things a mountain gives you.

But, altitude can also wreak havoc on your skin. Ice-cold winds, low humidity, perspiration from exercise and extreme UV are all a recipe for skin damage, a dry skin-barrier, soreness, itchiness, redness and cracking.

So you can enjoy the mountains to their fullest and focus on the reasons you’re there (and not the painful side-effects), here are five tips on skin safety at altitude, including why we think they’re important.

1. UV

For years, goggle marks and a face tan have been a status symbol for a well-enjoyed ski trip. Nowadays, people are more aware of the seriously damaging effects the sun’s UV light can have on our skin and that couldn’t be more true at altitude, for two reasons.

Firstly, you’re 1,500+ metres closer to the sun which sounds obvious because it is. But also the air is thinner and cleaner at altitude so less UV is filtered out. The cumulative effect of this means UV levels increase by 10% for every 1,000m you travel above sea level, according to the World Health Organization.

In addition to this, light reflection plays a major role in increasing your UV exposure on a mountain. In winter, UV hits you twice: once from the sun and again, as it bounces off snow and back onto you, almost doubling your exposure.

For these reasons, a mountain is one of the harshest UV environments you can find yourself in. Even when it’s a whiteout during winter, damaging UV passes through cloud cover as many of us can attest to having got home, red-faced and confused.

Whats the solution? Use an SPF 50+ product (with the UVA circle sign or 5* Ultra) on any exposed skin. Reapply at every coffee or hot chocolate break. Don’t get caught out. For summer mountaineers, UPF 50+ clothing is a neat solution because it’s the ultimate physical barrier while being lightweight and sweat-proof.

2. Moisture

There is so much going against you at altitude when it comes to maintaining skin moisture: low humidity, ice cold winds, water loss in the form of perspiration, regular switching between inside and out, and hot showers, just to name a few of the main culprits.

We wrote an entire piece on skin moisture but in short, skin dryness can causes itchiness, cracking and discomfort. The cold means our skin produces less sebum. All skin types, even greasy skin need extra care.

Whats the solution? Over moisturise (if that makes sense). Beginning of the day and end of the day religiously. Use a heavier moisturiser than you might be used to as it will provide a thicker layer, or barrier, on the surface of your skin. As hard as this is after a long day in ski boots, try to avoid long, hot showers. Warm is your friend.

3. Lips

Even if your lips don’t normally need any special attention, they probably will do in the mountains. Lips don’t produce sebum so can quickly become dry. They also burn more easily than other areas of skin.

Whats the solution? Keep an SPF lip balm in your pocket for both UV protection and moisture. Reapply constantly throughout the day.

4. Eyes

When skiing or mountaineering, protecting your eyes against sunlight and glare from snow and ice is really important for your eye health. As mentioned, UV levels can be high even on a cloudy day and overexposure can lead to painful inflammation, known as ‘snow blindness’. It can also increase the likelihood of developing cataracts.

Whats the solution? Sunglasses or goggles with UV400 protection (or which have the CE kite mark) are a critical piece of kit. Low quality lenses can cause more harm than good as you can read in our blog post devoted to eye protection.

5. Drink

Maintain cellular moisture from the inside out and drink up. This really is one of the best ways to keep your skin moisture levels high. Assuming you’re skiing, hiking, walking, climbing etc. you’ll also be sweating in which case, drink more than you usually would.

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