Don't be surprised this season if a lift operator asks if you're wearing sunscreen. Concerned about the rise in skin-cancer rates, the AMC Cancer Research Center in Denver, Colo., is looking to resort employees to pass its message along to skiers. Thirty-two Western ski areas are joining in a $3 million study to measure the effectiveness of employees educating guests about the danger of sun exposure.
“Initially we interviewed skiers and snowboarders on chairlifts,” says Dr. David Buller, chairman of the research center. “We found that many of them don’t protect themselves from sun exposure. Our task is to convince them to take precautions by using sunscreen, covering up with clothing and hats, and wearing 100 percent UV-blocking glasses or goggles.”
Guests at participating resorts will see signs on the mountain, more sun-protection products in stores and bulk sunscreen dispensers on the hill. They’ll also hear instructors, patrollers and other employees talking about sun protection.
"A lot of people aren't aware of how strong the sun can be - how on a bright day the sun reflects off the snow," says Ron Kidder, patrol director at Loveland, one of 12 Colorado resorts participating in the study. "A burn happens in a hurry and doesn't show up until after you leave the mountain." You burn quickly on the slopes because UV intensity increases 5 percent with every 1,000 feet of elevation. So on top of Aspen Mountain, for instance, UV rays are 55 percent more intense than at sea level.
Though the tanned look may be "in" on the slopes, it doesn't mean healthy skin. "A tan is your skin's reaction to the damage done by ultraviolet radiation," Buller says. On a sunny day, unprotected skin can burn in 10 minutes. Intense sun exposure can cause early wrinkling, age spots, cataracts and various kinds of skin cancer-with malignant melanoma the least common but most deadly form. With each type of skin cancer, ultraviolet radiation damages the DNA in skin cells and temporarily breaks down and suppresses the immune system.
Unfortunately for many, damage may already be done. Studies show that two severe blistering sunburns before the age of 20 double your risk of developing melanoma - which could metastasize and cause cancer elsewhere in the body - at a later time in life. However, all skin carcinomas can be curable if detected early.
It's not too late to save your skin. To enjoy skiing while still protecting yourself from the sun's harmful rays, take the following precautions:
>>>Apply sunscreen correctly. Lube up 20 minutes before going outside. And use enough; the American Academy of Dermatology recommends "a shot-glass full every two hours you're outside." Don't forget to cover areas like the underside of your nose and your earlobes.
>>>Use lip balm that contains sunscreen, and reapply every one to two hours.
>>>Wear waterproof sunscreen. Snow and sweat can wash off lotion.
>>>Protect your eyes. Use 100 percent UV-blocking sunglasses or goggles and avoid mirrored lenses, which can reflect rays onto your face.
>>>Wear a hat with a brim to shade your face and eyes.
>>>Protect yourself even on cloudy days, because about 80 percent of UV rays pass through clouds.
>>>Make sure children are protected. 80 percent of UV exposure occurs in childhood.
>>>Take B-carotene and Vitamin E. A German study found that ingesting these supplements 10 to 12 weeks before intense sunlight exposure can increase your own basic protection to SPF 2 or 3. Although supplements are helpful, additional precautions are needed for the extreme UV exposure levels that are found at high altitudes.
>>>Watch medications, such as antibiotics, that increase your sensitivity to the sun. Read labels carefully.
>>>Be especially vigilant between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun is strongest. If your shadow is shorter than you are, consider skiing in shaded areas. The AMC Cancer Research Center says that sun reflection off snow (albedo) can nearly double the amount of UV rays that hit your skin.
>>>Check the UV Index Forecast. Daily forecasts - calculated by ozone levels, cloud amounts, and elevation of individual cities - are available at www.weather.com or www.epa.gov.
Choosing a Sunscreen
Don’t know which sunscreen to pick? Look for a broad-spectrum product, one that protects from both UVA and UVB rays with an SPF of 30 or more, recommends Dr. Ken Gross of the Division of Dermatology at the University of California at San Diego.
If you do burn, cool baths,, aloe and hydrocortisone creams can help soothe the pain. Watch out for irregularly shaped moles that grow in size. Also, take vitamins C and E, which combat aging effects and keep your skin healthy.
In the next few years, scientists plan to introduce to the market a vaccine that treats melanoma. Not preventive like the flu shot, the vaccine instead works almost immediately to recognize and attack cancer cells at the early stages of skin cancer. Until then, covering up is still your best bet.
- SKI MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 2001