As someone who grew up in Colorado but has taken a lot of tropical vacations, I can tell you it’s possible to get sunburnt anywhere. Most consumers understand the importance of wearing sunscreen for a beach day, hiking, or a pool party but most likely forget about this product when skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing in the mountains. Growing up it was always obvious when someone in my class went skiing because they would come back with a wind-burnt face rocking ski goggle burn lines.
Despite being in a colder environment, winter activities typically put you at a higher altitude, where you are closer to the sun, with UV rays reflecting off that white powder directly back to your delicate skin. According to the EPA, snow reflects/scatters 80% of UV radiation. Water and sand both reflect UV rays but in much lower percentages, <10% and 15% respectively. Other factors that affect UV exposure levels (a.k.a. the UV Index) include cloud cover, altitude, ozone, seasons, time of day, land cover, and latitude. So, who is more likely to get burnt, the skier or the surfer? The key factor in answering this question is altitude.
Altitude dramatically affects UV radiation. Surfers are at sea level (0 feet) while skiers are up at altitudes around 10,000 feet. UV radiation increases 4% for each 1,000 foot increase in altitude. So that puts skiers and surfers at a 40% increase in UV radiation compared to surfers! As the elevation increases, less of the Earth’s atmosphere is present in the thin mountain air to absorb/protect against UV radiation.
So while my question could be fought with more data and evidence than I would like to sort through right now. It’s definitely possible that, based on altitude alone, the skier is more likely to get sunburnt. Use this discussion as a super important reminder that sunscreen needs to be worn everywhere, no matter the climate! (And no – this does not mean you can get away with no sunscreen at sea level 🙂 )