Lather on the sunscreen, skiers and snowboarders. You’re at higher elevations and higher risk.

It isn’t only leaves that drop in the fall. By now, 80 degree October days notwithstanding, we’re all aware that summer is over and with the shorter, less-sunny days come coats and mittens, and away go shorts and sandals. But there’s one thing people associate with summer that shouldn’t be pushed to the back of the shelf: sunscreen.

In the fall, levels of sunscreen use in the US diminish dramatically. In a national survey commissioned by the Melanoma Foundation of New England in September 2016, 39 percent of the adults polled said they always use sunscreen during the summer months, but only 13 percent said they always used it in the fall. Occasional users and those who used sunscreen specifically for outdoor activities remained about the same, at around 24 percent. Although the survey saw a slight increase for those who said they always use sunscreen during winter (17 percent), those who said they never used sunscreen in winter rose to 53 percent, because the rate of occasional users and those applying sunscreen specifically for outdoor activities fell to 15 percent in winter. That’s the lowest out of all four seasons and a startling figure given the number of outdoor sports that New Englanders take part in during those months.

“The perception is that sunscreen is only needed in the summer,” says Deb Girard, executive director of the Melanoma Foundation of New England, which is based in Concord. “We actually had the survey done so that we could look at the opportunities to educate about the importance of sunscreen in any season, not just the summer. The Sunscreen Project looked at different parts of the country and the time of year, and we found that people in the Northeast used sunscreen during the summer, but after Labor Day and before Memorial Day, sunscreen use decreased dramatically.”


Skiers and snowboarders have an increased risk because of altitude and also reflection from the snow, both of which intensify UV penetration. “The danger of increased skin cancer risk at any time is really about the intensity of the sun and how much UV penetration is coming through the clouds. But in winter you figure in how much reflection comes off the snow, too,” explains Girard.

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“It’s the same as at the beach, the sun reflects off the water,” she adds, “and it also reflects off the snow. When people are high up in the mountains skiing and get burns, they think that it’s a windburn. But it’s a sunburn.”

The higher up the mountain you go, the higher the risk: “We have calculated that at 4,000 feet, UV exposure is 20 times more intense than at sea level,” Girard emphasizes. “At 9,000 to 10,000 feet, UV penetration is 45 percent higher than at sea level.”

Most people don’t think about applying sunscreen when they are on the slopes because they feel well protected by clothing and helmets. But the risk isn’t lessened by the amount of skin exposed; the tiniest patch of exposed skin is vulnerable to damage and skin cancer. “The body is more protected because we have all our ski clothes on, but the face, neck, and ears are very often exposed,” says Girard. That’s why the MFNE’s Practice Safe Skin program, which is behind the public sunscreen dispensers that have popped up in local parks and places where people gather outside in the warmer months, is focusing on winter activity and spearheading an effort to get the dispensers in as many of New England’s ski resorts as possible. One of the problems with using dispensers was developing a sunscreen that would retain its consistency, and that proved doubly tricky in colder weather because of freezing.

“It took about four or five different processes to get it right. The right consistency has to be thin enough to work in the dispensers and not clog, but also we don’t want them to freeze up. Placing them inside doorways and in the restroom works fine. You use hand soap and then you use the sunscreen dispenser.”


Also, as there’s no point in putting harmful chemicals on the skin to protect it, the sunscreen is a natural formula using zinc and titanium dioxide, with glycerin and lavender to help maintain viscosity. There are no parabens and no synthetic fragrance added, and it is rated at SPF 30.

“We are concluding our first full summer season with the dispensers and have really worked at getting the kinks out,” says Girard. “Our goal is to have the ski resort roll-out completed over the next couple of years. Ski areas are often open year round, so it makes perfect sense to have sunscreen dispensers there. We want to get the information out that it doesn’t matter what the season.

“A few weeks ago, ‘The Simpsons’ was set in Boston and they found our sunscreen dispenser, and Marge says, ‘Sunscreen. How progressive,’ ” chuckles Girard. “We were really pleased to be recognized on ‘The Simpsons’!”

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Linda Clarke can be reached at