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Should sunscreen be used during the winter season as well?

The use of sunscreens to protect against UV rays is generally encouraged to prevent skin cancer and reduce photoaging. The general advice is to adopt a preventive behavior by using a sun protection product every day throughout the year, even in winter, so that people become more inclined to take precautions. But do we really need to apply sunscreen during the winter period?

Are we as exposed to UV rays in winter as we are in summer?

Earth experiences seasonal changes due to two phenomena: its movement around the Sun and its tilt relative to its axis, an imaginary line that runs from the North Pole to the South Pole. When the Earth is farther from the sun, this alters the angle and amount of sunlight that reaches the ground. A lower and longer angle of sunlight means it has to filter through a larger portion of the atmosphere, which weakens it, resulting in cooler temperatures and a decrease in UV rays that can damage the skin. This tilt, combined with the Earth's rotation, means that the sun's path in the sky is shorter, which reduces daylight. Less and weaker sunlight results in colder weather, hence the existence of winter.

Other meteorological and behavioral changes also influence UV exposure during the winter months.

  • Clouds: Colder weather leads to the formation of a greater number of clouds, which scatter UV rays and alter the amount that reaches the ground. Dense clouds can block up to 50% of UV rays, while thick clouds on sunny days can actually increase them. All of this varies quite significantly depending on the thickness, height, and type of clouds.

  • Snow: Snow can reflect UV rays. Fresh snow in the summer (it happens) can increase UV levels by about 30%, but it's likely much less in winter, due to the angle of the sun.

  • Altitude: The closer you get to the sun, the stronger the sun will be. UV levels increase by approximately 2 to 5% for every increase of 1,000 meters in altitude, likely due to the thinning of the atmosphere.

  • Time Spent Outdoors: People tend to spend less time outdoors in cold weather. In fact, it is estimated that winter only accounts for 5% of your annual UV exposure.

  • Winter Clothing: Not only do you spend less time outdoors, but the time you do spend outside, you're wearing thicker fabrics and more layers of clothing than in the summer, which significantly limits the potential for UV exposure.

Is Sunscreen Necessary Even in Winter?

One argument for the use of sunscreen in winter is that the level of UVA reaching the Earth's surface remains constant throughout the year, whether it's summer or winter, but this seems not to be the case. Apparently, the levels of UVA and UVB exhibit temporal variations throughout the year, these evidently decrease during the winter months (figure 1). Indeed, the elongated angle and reduced duration of sunlight in non-equatorial regions result in a decrease in UV and their weakening in winter, this is also true for UVA.

Even though exposure to UV and visible light is greatly reduced in non-equatorial regions during winter, the low levels still present can actually exacerbate photosensitive conditions, such as melanoma, acne, andhyperpigmentation. Given that visible light and UV can worsen these issues, it may be wise to use a sunscreen with protection against visible light all year round to prevent pigmentation from darkening.

After taking into account your place of residence, your personal levels of UV exposure, your skin type, and whether you are photosensitive... you can make an informed decision about whether or not you need a sunscreen in winter. Some will need it, others will not. When in doubt, it may be wise to apply it, just in case, and also to maintain this habit. People inaccurately associate two weather phenomena with UV, namely temperature and cloud cover.

Quantité d'UVA et d'UVB atteignant la surface de la Terre tout au long de l'année.


  • PAULIN K. J. & al. Effects of snow cover on UV irradiance and surface albedo: A case study. Journal of Geophysical Research (1998).

  • WENGRAITIS S. & al. Is a differentiated advice by season and region necessary? Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology (2006).

  • GONZÀLEZ J.-A. & al. Empirical studies of cloud effects on UV radiation: A review. Reviews of Geophysics (2005).

  • DIGNAN M. D. & al. Environmental cues to UV radiation and personal sun protection in outdoor winter recreation. Archives of Dermatological Research (2010).

  • TURNER J. & al. Evaluation of the cloudy sky solar UVA radiation exposures. Journal of Photochemistry and Photobiology B: Biology (2014).

  • DIFFEY B. Sun protection: a risk management approach. IOP Publishing (2017).

  • HAMZAVI I. H. & al. The role of sunscreen in melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation. Indian Journal of Dermatology (2020).


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