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A Dermatologist Just Set Me Straight On Wearing SPF In Autumn & Winter

Photographed by Sarah Harry Isaacs.
Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun. 
If wearing sunscreen in the summertime becomes as much a part of your daily groove as brushing your teeth, you can bet that your skin will thank you for years to come. But during the nine months of the year when the sun is a little more inconspicuous, UV radiation doesn’t disappear entirely. You may be going out less and covering up more, but how much sense does it make to ditch SPF from your skincare routine come cold weather?
Not very much, according to dermatologists — and there’s science to back it up. A report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency found that up to 80% of UV rays can penetrate cloud cover. Additional research suggests that clouds can actually increase UV radiation by scattering it, resulting in a large concentration of UV in certain areas. Then there’s the fact that snow reflects UV rays, posing a risk to skin. In other words, now might be the time to stock up, not hold back, on sunscreen.

Do you need to wear SPF in autumn and winter?

Doctor and cosmetic formulator Dr Vanita Rattan says it’s a common misconception that we should only wear sunscreen in the summer months. “When we feel hot, we’re reminded to wear it,” she explains, “but heat and sunshine do not solely represent the presence of UV radiation, which causes skin damage.”
The sun emits UVA rays (responsible for premature ageing and potentially deadly skin cancer) and UVB rays (which cause sunburn). Regardless of the time of year, they’re always present and can penetrate on the skin, adds Dr Rattan. Dr Derrick Phillips, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson, says that sunburn is less of an issue in the colder months, but he reiterates that UVA exposure can pass through clouds. “Yes there is less intensity, but it can still accumulate damage that can lead to skin cancer, ageing and other untoward effects,” he says.
Sunscreen messaging can be confusing, though. Imagine you head to work when it’s gloomy, spend an hour outside getting lunch or running errands, and then you head home when it’s dark. Is sunscreen necessary then? “You’d think that sunscreen isn’t that important but [exposure to UV] is a cumulative effect,” says Dr Phillips. “If you’re making that journey every day, year on year, then you are getting a reasonable amount of UV exposure, so it’s still a good idea to wear sunscreen.”
For this reason, Dr Rattan drives home the importance of slotting sunscreen into your morning routine, whether rain or shine. In particular, layering SPF over your chosen face cream. If your skin becomes dry as soon as the weather turns, an extra surge of moisture in the form of sunscreen is certainly a positive addition.

Do you need to wear SPF if you’re not going outside?

You might assume that staying indoors is enough to protect your skin from UV, but it’s not quite so cut and dry. UVB rays, which cause sunburn, are predominantly blocked by glass. But UVA rays can penetrate windows (even when there is seemingly no sunshine or heat apparent) and subsequently affect your skin, says Dr Rattan. “Whether you’re at your desk or walking to your car, you’re getting UV exposure,” adds Dr Phillips. Not only can UVA lead to weathering of the skin, which manifests as wrinkles and pigmentation, for example, but it has been associated with development of various skin cancers through chronic exposure over time, says Dr Phillips.

What are the skincare benefits of wearing SPF all year round?

Exposure to UV can cause a breakdown of collagen and elastin in the skin — two things that are essential for maintaining its firmness and elasticity, says Dr Rattan. “When collagen and elastin become damaged, your skin loses its suppleness,” says Dr Rattan, but a daily application of sunscreen protects against the loss of collagen and elastin.
It’s also beneficial for preventing the worsening of pigmentation as well as melasma, a common skin condition where grey or brown patches develop on the face. “These patches are caused by the overproduction of melanin, which can be triggered by sun exposure,” says Dr Rattan. Wearing SPF50+ daily helps to mitigate this risk, as it acts as a protective barrier against the harmful UV rays which can exacerbate this condition. Dr Phillips recommends a daily dose of sunscreen for his rosacea patients, too, as UVA in particular can aggravate the skin condition.
Sunscreen is also a must if you’re using retinoids (like retinol or retinal) or exfoliating acids like glycolic acid. “Exfoliating removes the top layer of the skin, bringing immature cells to the fore,” says Dr Phillips, and these cells are much more sensitive to sunlight exposure, regardless of the season. To avoid redness and irritation, it’s important to wear sunscreen and to apply it regularly.
The benefits of being diligent with sunscreen aren’t purely aesthetic, though. Dr Phillips reveals that he is diagnosing skin cancer more and more, particularly in young people. Specifically squamous cell carcinoma (non-melanoma skin cancer that begins as a growth of cells) and basal cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer that develops on areas of skin frequently exposed to UV). This, says Dr Phillips, is often a result of consistent sun exposure over time. “Skin cancer should be recognised as a public health issue,” says Dr Phillips, “and a preventative measure is to wear your sunscreen. It’s not just for the days you spend on the beach in the summer; it’s something you should be using every day, throughout the year.”

Should everyone wear sunscreen in winter?

Dr Rattan points out that people of colour have more protection from UV radiation than caucasian people. “Their higher concentration of melanin offers some inherent protection, acting as a natural sunscreen with an estimated SPF of seven,” says Dr Rattan. “However, their natural protection is still very low. You can’t even buy sunscreen with [that] SPF.” People with darker skin are still at risk of ageing prematurely, developing melasma and in the worst case, skin cancer from UV radiation, says Dr Rattan. Put simply, everyone will benefit from sunscreen.

What is the best sunscreen for autumn and winter?

Most dermatologists would recommend wearing a minimum of SPF30, but Dr Phillips says the higher the better — even in winter. “Studies have shown that we don’t apply enough sunscreen, anyway,” he explains. Say you’re using SPF30: “A lot of people tend to get around 20-30% of that [SPF number],” says Dr Phillips, “so the rationale is that you [should] apply the highest factor [SPF50] so that you get more protection.”
Dr Rattan suggests choosing a high factor, “broad spectrum” sunscreen, which provides protection against both UVA and UVB rays. She recommends looking at the protection grade level of your sunscreen, too. A PA++++ label ensures over 95% protection from UV radiation. Try Skincare by Dr V InZincable SPF50+, £24.99, Beauty of Joseon Ginseng Sun Serum SPF50+ PA++++ 50ml, £17, or Thank You Farmer Sun Project Skin Relief Sun Cream SPF50 PA++++, currently £18.90.

How much sunscreen should you be using in autumn and winter?

Dr Phillips advises applying a teaspoon amount of sunscreen to your face and neck, but if you don’t want to get technical, consider the “three finger” method: A slick of SPF down the entire length of your index, middle and ring finger should be enough. There’s no harm in over-applying sunscreen, but under-applying it is a real danger, says Dr Phillips. “Some people use it as moisturiser and are too precious with it. More premium sunscreens are expensive, so I can understand why an individual may want to be [sparing]. But you have to think about why you’re using the product in the first place.”
You don’t have to spend a small fortune on SPF, though. R29 rates Bondi Sands Sunscreen Lotion SPF50+ For Face, £6.99, Ambre Solaire Super UV Anti Dark Spots & Anti Pollution Face Fluid SPF50+, £12, and Ambre Solaire Super UV Anti-Age Face Protection Cream SPF50, £12, which all provide high protection against UVA and UVB rays.

Do you need to reapply sunscreen in the winter?

Dr Rattan points out that most people don’t know when to top up their sunscreen because once it’s absorbed, the SPF “coat” becomes invisible. It’s therefore impossible to tell when you’re not getting protection anymore. A general rule of thumb is to reapply your sunscreen every two hours and immediately after exercise. But are reapplication rules a little different in the winter, especially if you’re rarely outside? Dr Phillips says you probably don’t need to reapply your sunscreen every two hours as you do in the summer months, but if you want to err on the side of caution, or if you’re spending a good while outdoors, he suggests carrying a sunscreen mist and topping up when you can.
Lastly, winter is a good time to try a longer-acting sunscreen, adds Dr Phillips, as they tend to last a little longer on the skin. Look out for products that are “water resistant” or “waterproof”. Try Supergoop! Every. Single. Face. SPF50 Watery Lotion, £34, La Roche-Posay Anthelios UVMune 400 Hydrating Suncream SPF50, £18, or Sun Bum Original Broad Spectrum Moisturizing Sun Cream SPF50, £18.49.
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