Our first major experience with sunburn occurred our first spring here. We had been indoors all winter, and were totally unprepared for the intensity of the sun when we re-exposed our skin the following spring.
At higher altitudes, the sun rays are not filtered as well by the atmosphere. The result is cooler temperatures, combined with increased light intensity. The combination is deceptive, and potentially dangerous.
I am not a proponent of sunscreen all the time. I happen to believe that nature knows best, and the healthiest people have always been those that worked outdoors, not in. And this has been true long before the advent of sunscreen! I think that in another 20 years, we are going to be hearing an awful lot about the dangers of too much sunscreen, while at the current time, every time you turn around, someone is telling you to slather unnatural chemicals on your skin!
Now, I do not doubt that some types of sun exposure are dangerous. Repeated sunburns are a high risk factor for cancer. But I have noticed in our time here, that really, Spring is the only dangerous time.
We tend to stay indoors a lot in the winter, so when we go back out in the spring, the first few exposures can be harsh. The kids invariably burn the first time they go out in shirt sleeves for more than an hour in the springtime. So we have them use sunscreen during the “high burn risk” times. But we also let them build up a tan for the year, and then they work and play outside without sunscreen, and after the first month, they do not burn. Kevin and I do the same thing, applying sunscreen if we are out for the first time, or if we know we will be out in unusual circumstances, such as on the river for the day where sun exposure would be far more intense than usual.
What is surprising to people up here is, you can get sunburned in the shade. There is enough reflected light, that even sitting in a shaded area, sensitive skin can sunburn. You need to be especially careful if you are taking medication, or St. John’s Wort, which can make your skin extra sensitive to the sun. Please take this warning seriously, and apply sunscreen to avoid a burn, even if you are planning on wearing a sun hat or staying in the shade, because the light really can be that intense.
Sunburns at high altitude may also have a longer delay factor – they may not show up until you are more seriously burned than you would be at lower altitude. In other words, by the time you notice that you are turning pink, you may be actually in the process of developing a second degree burn that will blister. Fair skin can begin to burn within half an hour, and two hours can burn you badly enough to give you trouble sleeping that night.
Exercise additional care if you are out in the sun for the first major exposure in the spring, or if you are going to be out for the majority of a morning or afternoon. If you are visiting, please bring along a high SPF sunscreen and use it. The goal is not to avoid sun exposure, it is, specifically, to avoid sunburn.